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Ten Essay 





Though the sequence in which the essays in this collection are presented is 
not without an element of design, they were written on the premise that each 
should stand on its own merits. The only exceptions are the Introduction 
and the Epilogue, which were written to situate the other eight in a 
discussion of how secular criticism of religion could be more profitably 
conducted in the future. It should be possible to read each of the remaining 
eight independently of the others without sacrificing the comprehensibility 
of the arguments made in each. As such, the reader is encouraged to read 
them in any order desired, as well as to pass over any not pertaining to the 
reader's interest. 


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Dn Taking an Argument Seriously 


The Flattening of Historical 


Covert Theology 


The Diagnostics of Belief 


The Taxonomy of Religion 


Landscapes and Zeitgeists 


The Heirs of La Coterie 


A Drawing of Lines 

The Irreligious Right 



Failures (and the Future) of 
Religious Critique 

Introduction: Dn Taking an 
Argument Seriously 

We are kindest to Sam Harris when we are least inclined to take him at 
his word. Starting with the least controversial of his claims, we need not 
take it literally when, in the Acknowledgments to The End of Faith, 1 he 
declares, "I began writing this book on September 12, 200 1." 2 To do so 
would shortchange him, allowing his detractors to dismiss his arguments as 
an overreaction to the events of the day before. Such easy dismissals are to 
be avoided, as they often sweep away the legitimate issues behind an 
unwelcome opinion. The more revealing and valuable criticisms must be 
earned, and they are earned by approaching arguments on their own ground. 
As the following essays hope to illustrate, the most dangerous thing a 
person can do to an idea is take it seriously. 

Harris no doubt expected his readers to understand the implication. The 
impact of the September 11 th , 2001 airline hijackings has been, in many 
ways, comparable to that of the earthquake which destroyed Lisbon, 
Portugal on the first day of November in 1755. In the case of Lisbon, we 
have had more than two and a half centuries, and the aide of works like 
Voltaire's Poeme sur le desastre de Lisbonne, to appreciate the shifts of 
faith and philosophy instigated by the earthquake. By dating the 
commencement of work to the day after the airline attacks, Harris marks 
The End of Faith as the beginning of a reordering of society -wide 
perceptions about the world and culture that we inhabit, not unlike that 
achieved by Candide. 

Against the charge that there is more emotion than logic in his arguments, 
Harris would likely counter that much of what he had written had been 
settled in his mind long before the events of September 2001. The 11 th was 

1 Norton, 2005 

2 Pg. 333 

5 Against the Irreligious Right 

the occasion that made the book possible, but we may reasonably assume 
that, rather than leaping forth fully armored, like Athena from the forehead 
of Zeus, the ideas that Harris would express in The End of Faith had 
germinated for years before the first word was written. 

If this seems like a rather trivial point to insist upon: in itself, it is. The 
point is not that Harris falsified the story of the book. Only the most dry and 
literal of authors would prove innocent of that sort of symbolic gesture, and 
it may, after all, be literally true that he never before that day wrote a single 
note leading up to The End of Faith. The explication of that one admittedly 
innocent sentence merely illustrates that Harris' claims each entail a 
context, and that to take them seriously means appreciating them in the 
fullness of each context. Without understanding that The End of Faith is, in 
fact, the fruit of a lifetime (and more) of thought, the reader may be too 
easily tempted into supposing it shallow and beneath notice. 

Much the same applies with the books that followed The End of Faith, 
and which are routinely grouped with Harris' as belonging to the "New 
Atheist" school: Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell 3 , Richard Dawkins' 
The God Delusion 4 , and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great. 5 In some 
instances, we can see clear evidence of prior work on what might be called 
the problem of theism. In his career-defining work The Selfish Gene, 6 for 
example, Dawkins introduced the notion of the meme, in part as a way to 
account for ideas that seem to have outlived their usefulness. An example he 
gives of one such vestigial concept is the notion of God. That theme fades 
quickly from view in The Selfish Gene, only to be taken up again, both by 
Dawkins and Dennett, some 30 years later. 

What can be plausibly suggested about the relationship between the 
September 11 th terrorist attacks and the emergence of the "New Atheists" is 
that the former cleared the stage for the latter. Osama bin Laden's exultant 
"Allahu akbar" deafened Western society to the strands of dialogue that had 
until then prevailed in discussion about religion. A momentary void was 
rent in the fabric of public discourse, an opportunity to change the shape 
and direction of discussion. Prior to, the reception that could be expected to 
await the sort of outspoken anti-theistic polemic we find in the "New 
Atheist" would have been, to say the least, uncertain. Since September 11 th , 
such polemic has come to dominate in ways that would have previously 
seemed impossible, not least of all to the authors themselves. 

3 Viking, 2006 

4 Mariner Books, 2008 

5 Twelve, 2007 

6 Oxford, 1976 


Viewed in historical perspective, then, The End of Faith proves 
remarkable in the first place because it draws our attention to that shift in 
public receptiveness. In some ways, we are left with no other explanation 
for its success. Harris's name was virtually unknown prior to its publication; 
we cannot (as we might have had he been preempted by one of the 
established literary figures who followed him) attribute the success of The 
End of Faith to the expectations that so often drive book sales. The best 
explanation for its success may simply be that it gave voice to shifts in 
sensitivity to the topic of religion that pervaded English-speaking society in 
the wake of the September 11 th attacks. To say so is not to damn the text 
itself with faint praise, but to recognize the skill with which it responded to 
the historical moment. 

In doing so, it paved the way for the full articulation of ideas that had no 
doubt occupied Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens for some time - or, at any 
rate, for their publishers' willingness to give those ideas vent in the public 
arena. Harris himself followed The End of Faith with a second book on the 
topic, Letter To A Christian Nation, further cementing his reputation as a 
public critic of religion, and more recently with The Moral Landscape . 7 And 
while there have been numerous other contemporary entries in the field, 
those four authors have been regarded as a veritable coterie, and have 
contributed to that impression with their references to one another, even 
going so far as to video and distribute a round-table discussion under the 
title The Four Horsemen. 

Though the bulk of this and the essays that follow are written as though 
they were addressed to them, neither the authors of these six books, nor the 
books themselves, are truly the subject of what lies ahead. Those texts and 
personages are useful in that they prescribe and give definition to a nebula 
of beliefs, attitudes, opinions and agendas that have in recent years taken 
hold with a certain segment of the population. The true subject is something 
more nebulous and (I would argue) more far-reaching still than the books, 

7 Norton, 2007 and Free Press, 2010, respectively; when it is unclear from 
the context which of the primary books covered by these essays is being 
quoted, the footnotes will from here on refer to them by the following 

The End of Faith TEoF 

Breaking the Spell BtS 

The God Delusion TGD 

God Is Not Great GING 

Letter to a Christian Nation .... LtaCN 

The Moral Landscape TML 

g Against the Irreligious Right 

or their authors, or the public debate they conduct. It may be best described 
as a concern for the state of public dialogue about atheism and religion. 

The Four Horsemen claim to be motivated by the same concern, but the 
conclusions to which their arguments lead undermine the aim of opening 
discussion. Consider, for example, Harris' admission that, "My goal in 
writing this book has been to help close the door to a certain style of 
irrationality," 8 or Dawkins' to the effect that, "If this book works as I intend, 
religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." 9 It can 
be difficult to square such frank declarations of intent with the theme, 
common to all six books, that society can only benefit by an open and 
honest dialogue about religion. The political and evangelical ambition 
trump dialogue. The aspirations of Breaking the Spell prove, on close 
examination, more subtly mixed, and Letter to a Christian Nation seems to 
take its rhetorical cues from that book. A central contention of the present 
collection is that, despite claims to the contrary, there has long been an 
important public dialogue on the subject of religion. Far from having 
awakened society to the need for such dialogue, the Four Horsemen have 
narrowed it dangerously. Indeed, whether intentionally or not, their 
insistence that no such dialogue has so far taken hold contributes to that 
narrowing by allowing them to set the terms of discussion as though they 
were starting from scratch. In doing so, they clear away the contributions of 
entire generations. 

At times, in fact, they are so successful at narrowing the discussion that 
they brush past not only their points of disagreement with their detractors, 
but also disagreements between one another. The roundtable discussion 
captured on video in The Four Horsemen proves most fascinating during 
those brief intervals when it reveals the issues on which they part company. 
Those moments of genuine disagreement are all too brief, pasted over as 
they are by the general will to present a unified front. It becomes all the 
more critical to note those differences, not in order to divide and conquer, 
but because in doing so we gain an appreciation for the range of opinion 
that can be encompassed by the common sentiment they represent. To that 
end, in the course of examining what they have written, we shall be careful 
to point out on what points they disagree and to suggest what those 
disagreements may mean in the broader context of our subject. 

In the end, that subject must be regarded as neither the authors nor the 
audience, but rather the historical moment to which they have contributed. 
Part of the aim of these essays is to describe the shape of that moment. 
Those outlines encompass a particular kind of response, not only to the 

8 TEoF, 233 

9 TGD, 28 



events of September 11 th , but to a perception of history for which the 
destruction of the World Trade Center towers becomes a symbol and, 
perhaps, a culmination. That response proves, first of all, discursive: a 
reshaping of other perceptions both to accord with the past, and in 
anticipation of the future. From that discourse emerges a program of reform 
to be enacted. 


Perception, discourse, program: those are the general outlines of this atheist 
moment. Naturally, it is not the only sort of atheist moment possible, and 
another aim of these essays is to demonstrate why the shift towards another 
moment ought to be embraced without delay. No general condemnation of 
atheism should be inferred. Rather, these essays are meant as a clearing of 
the throat, leading up to a more productive discussion of the relationship 
between atheism and religion. The work of the "New Atheist" authors in 
facilitating this particular moment is no reflection on atheism per se - if 
anything, they stand in the way of an exploration not only of religion, but of 
the broad panoply of possible and present atheisms. When I refer to this 
atheist moment, I mean precisely that described in these essays. A new 
moment will replace it when another approach to the issues surrounding 
religion displaces it in public discourse. Just as their current preeminence 
serves as an index of the vitality of this atheist moment, it shall likewise 
signal the ascendency of a new historical moment when the "New Atheists" 
cease to hold that place of honor. 

But since most of what follows will be written as though addressed to 
them, it is probably best to dispense with this "New Atheist" business. 
There is, by this time, nothing controversial in noting that the label is 
something of a misnomer. The arguments levied by Harris, Dawkins, 
Dennett and Hitchens bear a strong family resemblance to arguments with 
roots in the 18 th century. They provide some novel innovations - Dawkins' 
use of the anthropic principle, for example - but have not significantly 
altered the main lines of debate established by Diderot and d'Holbach more 
than three hundred years ago. That our contemporary authors have touched 
off a new vogue for such polemic may be granted, but on the whole it has 
become such a commonplace among their critics that while few of them can 
dispense with the term "New Atheist," almost all of those same critics seem 
compelled to qualify their use of it. While I have so far seen fit to follow 
established usage, it seems to me that the aim should be to reform the term 
or dispense with it altogether. 

There is, I think, at least one strong justification for retaining it, namely 
that we cannot altogether deny historical change. If a group of intellectuals 

jq Against the Irreligious Right 

suddenly came out in favor of the Ptolemaic model of the universe, it would 
be reasonable to call them "New Ptolemaics," even if their description of 
the universe corresponded in nearly every detail with that believed in by 
pre-Copernican astronomers. What would be new in those latter-day 
Ptolemaics is their suspension of belief with regards to the changes in 
astronomical thought that have taken place in the meantime. Believing in 
the Ptolemaic system now requires a different attitude, a different approach, 
than believing in the same system did 500 years ago. It takes effort to ignore 
or evade all of those intervening centuries. 

Likewise, if there is anything genuinely new in the New Atheists it must 
be the rejection, sometimes overt, of the moderating influence of centuries 
of dialogue that grew in the interval between the Reign of Terror and the 
destruction of the World Trade Center towers. Precious little distinguishes 
their rhetoric from that of a pre-Revolutionary demagogue like d'Holbach, 
but to write from the opposite end of the history of atheist discourse, as 
though the interval between had only reiterated the context in which 
d'Holbach wrote, requires a heroic work of imaginative displacement. 
Indeed, the flattening of historical perspective is, as will later be 
demonstrated, characteristic of New Atheist arguments. 

But on the theory that names are best when they describe their subject 
accurately, and that some subjects are too complex to accurately describe 
with one or two words only, I do not intend to content myself with a single 
name. In calling someone a New Atheist, I hope to imply something about 
how they (often ironically) frame the subjects of deity, religion and atheism. 
Different names, most notably the Irreligious Right, will serve when it 
comes time to discuss other aspects of this atheist moment. Using the most 
apt name for whatever occasion presents itself will allow us to keep 
perception, discourse and program distinct: good practice, since their 
connection may be one of historical contingency rather than of necessity. It 
is at least conceivable that a person could belong to the Irreligious Right 
without also matching the profile of a New Atheist. Whenever it is 
necessary to refer to them as a group, and in order to distinguish them from 
New Atheists in general, I intend to talk about Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and 
Hitchens as the Four Horsemen, a title that they have, on occasion, claimed 
for themselves. 

Much will need to be said about the New Atheist's use of historical 
example, but it is in view of their impact on discourse that their historical 
perspective takes on particular meaning. Discourse reinforces perception, 
and vice versa. The opening of a dialogue is one of the professed goals of 
the Four Horsemen, and yet, the flattening of historical perspective entails a 
complementary flattening of dialogue. It is, in that regard, part of a more 
general tendency towards constraining public discussion about religion to a 
set of terms most likely to lead to the conclusions they prefer. The flattening 

Introduction 11 

of dialogue, the insistence on a leading (or misleading) terminology, and the 
canalization of discourse towards a preferred end: when, as has become 
popular, a person refers to "militant atheism," that is what I take them to 
mean. Likewise, when (in a lecture at the TED conference in February of 
2002) Dawkins recommended militancy in his fellow atheists, I take it that 
he meant that they should apply more pressure in arguing against religion. 

As with the term New Atheist, there has been some resistance to "militant 
atheism" as an identifier. The term "militant" raises violent connotations 
that have not, so far, manifested in the current generation of unbelievers, 
and the phrase could be taken to imply direct ideological decent from 
Marxist atheists, who were the first to adopt "militant" as a term of self- 
description. It will cause less confusion and offense, then, and will more 
accurately describe that aspect of the atheist moment, if I instead refer to the 
same phenomenon as polemical atheism. The linguistically astute will point 
out that "polemical" retains some suggestion of "militant," deriving as it 
does from the Greek word for war. As we shall later see, there is good 
reason for that. The important thing is that, while it may suggest a latent 
element of militancy, the English word deals primarily with verbal, rather 
than physical, disputes. 

In addition to its historical component, polemical atheism concerns itself 
with topics as diverse as the nature of knowledge, faith, and belief; the 
proper constitution of governance and society; moral conflict and 
relativism; science and, more ambiguously, cosmology; and the metaphors 
by which we understand and express religious thought and, less precisely, 
"spirituality." All that may be neatly subsumed under the rubric of 
philosophy, especially to the extent that philosophy may be said to shape the 
terms by which we contemplate the world. We might go so far as to wonder 
whether the polemical atheist makes a rhetorical imperative of "opening 
dialogue" precisely in order to shape those terms. In fact, the word dialogue 
is usually a misnomer when applied to the rhetoric of the polemical atheists. 
They are more often engaged in the construction of what Foucault called 
discourse; that is, a way of circumscribing a topic in language so that 
discussion, even thought, may only be directed towards certain ends. As 
Dennett writes in the first chapter of Breaking the Spell, "The form our 
questions take opens up some avenues and closes off others, and we don't 
want to waste time and energy barking up the wrong tree." 10 He no doubt 
means that innocently, but much of what we will have to say about the 
books of the Four Horsemen will concern the avenues closed off by the 
forms of inquiry they prefer. For a start, it is worth asking how Dennett 

10 6fS, 19 

12 Against the Irreligious Right 

expects to find the right tree without "wasting" a little time barking up a 
few that are wrong. 

More obliquely, Harris writes, "Every sphere of genuine discourse must, 
at minimum, admit of discourse - and hence the possibility that those 
standing on its fringe can come to understand the truths that it strives to 
articulate." 11 It would take a Derrida or a Chomsky to fully unravel such an 
obfuscation, and I am clearly neither one, but we may begin by noting two 
ideas expressed therein. First of all, the phrase "genuine discourse" implies 
that there are counterfeit or illegitimate spheres of discourse; one hardly 
need guess which arguments Harris would place in that category. And 
secondly, the latter half of the sentence seems to presume that the truth of 
the discourse he prefers is already given. Thus the purpose of the discourse 
is not to arrive at truth or a dialogical exchange of perspective, but to 
conscript those standing outside of the discourse: that is, those who engage 
in illegitimate discourse. This stands at a pronounced distance from the 
program of truth-seeking suggested by most of the Horsemen in their calls 
for a public dialogue. 

We see this concern with discourse played out in a number of ways. A 
decided contrast is discernible between the very vocal calls for a public 
dialogue and the sort of venues that the Four Horsemen have generally 
preferred. Breaking the Spell, for example, commences with a litany of calls 
for an open inquiry into the nature and origins of religion, but steadily 
progresses towards a position that ought to draw into question the sincerity 
of those calls. It may be that the contradiction apparent between that stated 
purpose and the end actually pursued by Dennett's book speaks to nothing 
more suspect than the inconsistency of the author's will. Less generously, 
the reader may be inclined to regard it as an index of the degree of duplicity 
the author is willing to indulge in pursuit of an scrupulously unmentioned 
agenda. To that end, it could be taken as an admission of strategy when 
Dennett writes, "Even if 'we' are right, insisting on it from the outset is 
ultimately neither diplomatic nor scientific." 12 By comparison, the 
forthright admission in The End of Faith and The God Delusion, that each 

11 TEoF, 45. The italics on the word discourse belongs to the original. 
Indeed, it would be tedious to specify each time, so frequently is emphasis 
added by the authors themselves. Hardly a single page of Breaking the Spell 
escapes without a least one or two italicized words, and it would add pages 
to these footnotes to specify the origin of each, so from hereon the reader 
will be safe in assuming that I have added no emphasis to any of the 
quotations that follow. 

12 BtS, 376 



author hopes to divest their readers of their religious faith, seems downright 

The guided tours of the subject matter offered by their books and lectures; 
the heavily moderated debates; the televised appearances in forums like 
CNN: no stretch of the imagination is required to see the work of the Four 
Horsemen in terms of a public relations campaign rather than a society -wide 
discussion. The question of who is to be involved on the other side of the 
dialogue has often been carefully managed. Dawkins' reluctance to debate 
some of the more vocal exponents of creationism (like publicity -hungry and 
fallacy-laden Ray Comfort) is perhaps understandable, and we can hardly 
expect the Horsemen, whose schedules are so much in demand, to meet 
every request made of them. But there are other high profile examples that 
draw into question the sincerity of their emphatic calls for a fair and 
balanced inquiry. One such instance is the non-profit organization founded 
by Harris in 2007. Dubbed Project Reason, it purportedly "seeks to 
encourage critical thinking and wise public policy through a variety of 
interrelated projects" with a "special focus" on religion. 13 Yet its advisory 
board offers little promise that the Project itself will make room for 
dissenting voices, made up as it is of the Four Horsemen themselves and a 
litany of figures already prominently identified with their work, not limited 
to novelists Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, television writer Brent 
Forrester, and comedian Bill Maher. Unsurprisingly, its dossier of current 
projects departs little from the programs described in the books of the 
Horsemen. Perhaps the most prominent joint venture so far undertaken by 
Project Reason is the promotion of the books by the Four Horsemen, the 
dust-jackets of which feature the praise of its advisory board. 14 

A less institutional example may better illustrate the general attitude that 
seems to underlie the polemical atheist treatment of public discourse. On 
Dawkins' website may be found a page listing many of the published 
rebuttals to the Horsemen's books, listed under the title "The Fleas." The 
allusion is to Yeat's poem "To A Poet...", which ends, "But was there ever a 
dog that praised its fleas." 15 Yeats' poem was meant to explain his refusal to 
praise certain poets who mimicked his verse; Dawkins' reference seems 
calculated rather to dismiss (even as it recognizes) his critics. As 
ungenerous as this may have been on Yeats' part, it is all the more so 

13 http://www.proiect-reason.orq/about/ 

14 Cf. the dust jacket of the first edition of The Moral Landscape, the back of 
which is adorned by four quotations in its praise, all from Project Reason 

15 (accessed July, 201 0) 


Against the Irreligious Right 

coming from an author who has received exactly the sort of debate his book 
calls for. 

A similar, though less smirking, dichotomy may be found on Harris' 
website. There, under the heading "Recommended," we find a list of Harris- 
approved books which is, in turn, divided into several subcategories. 
"Religion and Religious Criticism" appears at the top of that list, and 
though it includes the books of his fellow Horsemen, books by authors 
responding to The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation are 
sequestered on a separate page entitled "Harris' Critics." At the top of that 
page sits a disclaimer - "I can't truly 'recommend' these books, but I 
thought readers should be made aware of them" 16 - suggesting a grudging 
acknowledgment made only in order to conform to something 
approximating the spirit of dialogue. Harris gives no indication of having 
attempted to take such counter-arguments seriously, and indeed, both Letter 
to a Christian Nation and The Moral Landscape are heavy-laden with a 
priori rationalizations for refusing to take this or that argument seriously. 17 
There is no reason to think, then, that Harris will extend to the present 
essays the courtesy they extend to him. 

Even so, the disclaimer on Harris' site proves charitable compared to 
Dawkins' explanation. The list of Fleas is preceded by a legend explaining 
that, "Many 'parasitic' authors have released books which use Richard's 
name or titles to sell their own books [...] Similar books have appeared 
which capitalize on success by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens." 18 
That description suggests the phantom of neutrality, but the list features no 
fleas in the sense of imitators, as Yeats used the term, only dissenters. 
Surely there are books in favor of the Horsemen's positions that could 
plausibly be categorized as fleas; perhaps listing those books would have 
struck too close to home. After all, it could be asked how Dawkins and 
Hitchens managed to pass as dogs rather than fleas, since their books could 
be said to imitate and capitalize on the success of The End of Faith. No, the 
point of the list seems unambiguous: only those who disagree qualify as 
"parasitic." Nor does the page give any indication that those books or essays 
might have been published out of the desire to tender genuine contributions 
to the discussion. All who would respond to their claims are thereby thrown 
on the defensive, forced to explain the same sort of financial reward and 
publicity that the Horsemen themselves have so unapologetically accrued. 

16 http://www.samharris.orq/site/book category reading list/C39/ 

17 See "Landscapes and Zeitgeists" for examples from The Moral 





In the final analysis, discourse may be unavoidable, but like any potent 
cultural tool, our choice of how to employ it has consequences for the form 
our societies take. These essays have been written from the conviction that 
history has revealed certain dangers, potentially fatal, in the sort of 
discourse revived in the last decade. In principle, atheist polemic could take 
any number of forms. Atheist anarchists of the 20 th century, for example, 
crafted their polemic as a reaction against the authoritarian and monarchical 
symbols of Judeo-Christian religion; religion was to be rejected because it 
was simply another form of governance, covertly supporting archaisms like 
property and social hierarchy. In part, it is the relationship of New Atheism 
to polemical atheism that distinguishes the present atheist moment from 
many of the past and potential moments in whose place its stands. That 
polemic has been furnished almost exclusively by the New Atheists. In 
doing so, New Athiesm has revived the polemic of the 18 th century with 
only fleeting recognition of the lessons of modernity. Likewise, their 
rejection of much of the best that has been written, said and done since the 
Reign of Terror has made it all but impossible to suppose that they will see 
the defects in that polemic. The 1 9 th and 20 th centuries preferred a wealth of 
dialogue about religion; all of that is lost from view in this atheist moment. 
All that remains are the latter-day reflections of the 18 th century rejection: 
Freud's The Future of an Illusion, Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian, and 
so on. 

To make the point more explicit: an objection to the heirs of 18 th century 
anti-theism is not an attempt to close the doors on the public discussion over 
religion and atheism. Rather, the opposite is needed, a discussion that tests 
the limits of narrow discourse. The first step towards that is an open, 
informed and intensive questioning of the terms that currently dominate 
popular discourse. To put an even finer point on it, the interests of those 
who describe themselves as atheists are, I would contend, best served by 
parting ways with the discourse prescribed by the Four Horsemen, not in 
favor of an acquiescent retreat or an affable lack of conviction, but in order 
to make room for approaches and attitudes less favorable to the fatal denials 
of their historical idealism and the language of zero-sum conflict. 

And finally, it is the aim of this work to demonstrate that such rhetoric is 
not only incorrect, but also irresponsible. It is for precisely that reason that 
we cannot simply ignore it. Indeed, I intend to be least generous when I am 
taking it most seriously. To the degree that their discourse prevails over 
other modes of discussion, we will find that potentially beneficial avenues 
seem to mysteriously close before us. Our adopted incapacity for talking 
about them in any but the most dismissive terms will put those avenues 

^(5 Against the Irreligious Right 

beyond reach and, perhaps, out of mind as well as sight. For some, that is 
precisely the point, since it is their aim to steer society in another direction. 
The irresponsibility we find in their work is a tactical gamble, one they may 
have been more hesitant to indulge had they taken to heart the counsel of 
history. The work of this polemical atheism is riddled with faulty principles, 
ill-conceived analogies, leaps of reason and faith, figures of speech and 
rhetorical attitudes that could all too easily become the kindling of a less 
humane reaction to religion. Already in the work of the Four Horsemen we 
see the rudiments of policy taking shape, and the intimation of political and 
legal solutions to what they present as religious problems. The culmination 
of the responses we find in the New Atheism, and the discourse of the 
polemical atheism it facilitates, is a program indicative of what I shall call 
the Irreligious Right. But more on that in another essay. 

To summarize: The texts compassed by these essays - The End of Faith, 
The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, God Is Not Great, Letter to a 
Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape, as well as an assortment of 
smaller, supplementary texts and utterances by the same authors - describe 
the participation of certain atheists in a transitional moment in history. In 
general terms, that moment may be said to consist of a particular set of 
perceptions, a carefully constrained form of discourse, and a program with 
social, cultural and political implications. To designate a person a New 
Atheist, a polemical atheist, or a member of the Irreligious Right is to 
indicate their participation in each of those activities, respectively. While 
there is no necessary connection between them, what is characteristic of the 
prime movers of this transition is their participation in all three; they draw 
New Atheism, polemical atheism, and the Irreligious Right into relation. 
That is demonstrably the case when it comes to the so-called Four 
Horsemen. An atheist need not be as polemical as Harris, or as political as 
Hitchens, as diagnostic as Dennett, or as convinced of an ideal of history as 
Dawkins in order to participate. The variable involvement of the Horsemen 
no doubt illustrates the heterogeneity of their less visible counterparts. 

And finally, all of this contributes to circumstances that have a deleterious 
effect on public discourse about religion, and incline towards public policy 
that would erode much of what is most promising about the culture that 
grew out of the very Enlightenment movement the Four Horsemen presume 
to defend. If we hope to understand religion and its relation to civil society, 
it is important to break the constraints of this atheist moment and work 
towards a more fruitful polyphony. My hope is that the essays to follow, of 
which the preceding is but an outline, will open the way to that end. 

The Flattening of Historical 

To PUT THE CENTRAL CLAIM of Young Earth Creationism in historical 
perspective, Harris comments: "This means that 120 million of us place the 
big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew 
beer." 1 This implies a flattening of historical perspective of several orders of 
magnitude, one that, New Atheists argue, involves the believer in a 
dangerous distortion of reality. Ironic, then, that a similar flattening of 
perspective proves so characteristic of New Atheist arguments. Not at the 
ends, of course: when it comes to the theoretical age of the universe, or the 
expected lifespan of the solar system, they can be relied upon to keep 
abreast of the latest estimates. But when called upon to deal with the messy 
and decidedly human province of recorded history, they are prone to 

That would be a minor complaint were it not for the degree to which they 
rely on a particular presentation of religious history to make their case 
against religion. The Four Horsemen are practically united in presenting a 
vision of history as a prolonged clash of secular and theocratic civilizations, 
brought to a final head by the introduction of nuclear weapons. The flatness 
of that historical view can be made apparent by contrasting it with a more 
thorough examination of the actual and winding path of history, but the 
New Atheists prefer to deal with isolated examples. By the lopsided 
accumulation of such examples, they sometimes achieve the illusion of 

It is easy to fall into the habit of talking about history in terms that are 
actually far more expansive than the scope we are, at any given time, 
capable of taking into view. We speak rather casually about the whole 
sweep of human history, or of the events of a particular era, as though it 

1 TEoF, 17 


18 Against the Irreligious Right 

were not treacherous to deal with large swaths of time as a conceptual unity. 
An historical account is always a limited account, conditioned by a series of 
choices that are, with any luck, contrived to include all that is most germane 
and omit only what can be overlooked without compromising our 
intellectual honesty. Savvy readers of history must continually bear in mind 
that any given account results from just that sort of decision-making 
process, and exercise as best they can a critical faculty that will allow them 
to sort out omissions of convenience and inclusions of necessity from the 
agendas that might otherwise encourage a historian to sway their reader into 
a false interpretation. 

It may be best to begin by taking stock of the sort of arguments the New 
Atheists hope to establish through their use of historical example. In the 
first chapter of The End of Faith, Harris presents the following list of 
conflicts, described in terms of the religious affiliations of the groups 

The recent conflicts in Palestine (Tews v. Muslims), the Balkans 
(Orthodox Serbians v Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians v. 
Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants v 
Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims v. Hindu), Sudan (Muslims v. 
Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims v. Christians), Ethiopia 
and Eritrea (Muslims v. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists v. 
Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims v. Timorese Christians), and the 
Caucasus (Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims; Muslim 
Azerbaijanis v. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few 
cases in point. 2 

Harris seems to have rather high expectations for these examples. He 
presents them specifically as object lessons in the dangers of divergent 
religious belief. "These events should strike us like psychological 
experiments run amok," he writes, "for that is what they are. Give people 
divergent, irreconcilable, and untestable notions about what happens after 
death, and then oblige them to live together with limited resources. The 
result is just what we see: an unending cycle of murder and cease-fire." 

It is true that newspaper reports (which, as we shall see in a moment, 
Harris often depends upon for his background on such examples) present 
such conflicts in terms of the religious affiliations of the groups involved. I 
have no intention of disputing the correlations implied by such results, but 
an examination into each individual case will often complicate any 

2 TEoF, 26 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective ig 

suggestion that those religious affiliations are sufficient to explain the 
events to which they are attached. To illustrate, it will suffice to follow 
Harris' own example. He sharpens the focus first on the large-scale, post- 
partition animosity between India and Pakistan, then on what were, at the 
time of the publication of The End of Faith, the still recent riots in the 
region of Gujurat. 

The westernmost state in India, Gujurat has a mixed Hindu and Muslim 
population that has, in recent decades, been prone to outbursts of violence 
across demographic lines. In 2002, violence again broke forth, first in the 
burning of passenger cars in a train returning from a Hindu shrine, killing 
59 people, and then, in riots led largely against the Muslim population of 
the city, in which the death toll may have included as many as 2,000 people, 
mostly Muslim. 

For Harris, the explanation is both obvious and simple: Religious 
communities are characteristically hostile towards communities of a 
different religious persuasion, and the strong lines drawn around religious 
identities in Gujurat made violent conflict all but inevitable. Any potential 
for peaceful reconciliation was eroded by the role played by faith in inter- 
communal relations. Faith insulated believers from criticism; faith justified 
any behavior in defense of the religious community. And just in case the 
reader is tempted to put special emphasis on his earlier mention of limited 
resources, Harris narrows his claim by declaring that, "The cause of this 
behavior was not economic, it was not racial, and it was not political. [...] 
The only difference between these groups consists in what they believe 
about God." 3 He has, by process of elimination, isolated religion as the only 
substantive cause of the riots. For all intents and purposes, he presents it as 
pure and uncomplicated evidence in favor of the New Atheist thesis. And, 
indeed, if we constrain ourselves to Harris' account of the Gujurat riots, the 
causes may well seem just that simple. 

Curiously, we need only look at Harris' own sources in order to draw that 
causal purity into question. The first is a report by journalist Celia W. 
Dugger entitled, suggestively enough, "Religious Riots Loom Over Indian 
Politics." 4 The article itself is relatively short, yet there is much material 
germane to the question of the role played by religion, the most salient of 
which nevertheless does not appear in Harris' retelling. He does not 
mention, for example, Dugger's reference to the role of Gujurat's dominant 
political force, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in "exploiting religious divisions 
to reap Hindu votes," nor does he reprint the quote attributed to a "senior 

3 TEoF, 27 

4 New York Times, July 27, 2002. 

20 Against the Irreligious Right 

police official" to the effect that, "It was a state-sponsored pogrom." That 
certainly casts doubt on Harris assertion that the cause "was not political." 

His second citation is to "The Other Face of Fanaticism," a longer article 
by novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra. 5 Early on, Mishra says of the 
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, of which the B.J.P. is the political wing, 
that its "resemblance to the European Fascist movements of the 1930's has 
never been less than clear." The second chief of the R.S.S., he notes, had 
cited Nazi racial pride as an example that Hindus could "profit" by. What, 
then, are we to make of Harris' confidence in ruling the racial motive out of 
court when Mishra's article makes it clear that R.S.S. and B.J.P. rhetoric 
presents its nationalistic platform, and Hindu identity in general, in 
specifically racial terms? 

Likewise, the article suggests, contra Harris, an economic component to 
the Gujurat violence. In it, B.J. Bhole, a political scientist at Nagpur 
University, explains that, "The united Hindu nation they keep talking about 
is one where basically low-caste Hindus and Muslims and Christians don't 
complain much while accepting the dominance of a Brahmin minority. The 
R.S.S. has been most successful in Gujarat, where low-caste Hindus and 
tribals were indoctrinated at the kind of schools you went to. They were in 
the mobs led by upper-caste Hindu nationalists that attacked Muslims and 
Christians." If Bhole's analysis is correct, the B.J.P. 's success in stirring up 
violence in Gujurat, as well as its success in the subsequent elections, was 
built on the exploitation of economic and caste differences. 

We can thus say with some confidence that there were, after all, 
economic, racial and political components to the Gujurat riots. I can see no 
way to make the argument that Harris was simply ignorant of the role 
played by those components, since the evidence for them is easily found in 
the very sources he cites. That he has chosen not merely to ignore them, but 
to explicitly deny them, suggests a willingness to allow historical inquiry to 
be shaped by a desired conclusion. At the very least, a fuller consideration 
of the evidence forces us to admit that the episode was driven by a more 
complex array of forces than Harris' account lets on. 

When Harris does employ direct quotations from the sources he cites, his 
preference is for the lurid over the enlightening. The original article was 
comprised of around fifty paragraphs; from this, Harris chose to quote only 
the one describing the violent excesses of the riots. He dwells, in particular, 
on reports that pregnant women were disemboweled and the fetuses 
impaled. The purpose of this quotation, it seems, is to cast the episode in 
terms of a particular perception of the Middle Ages, to tie Gujurat, that is, to 
a broader conception of the role of religion in historical violence. A reader, 

5 New York Times Magazine, Feb. 2, 2003, pp. 42-46. 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 21 

then, who mistakes Harris' account as a plain, agenda-free recounting of the 
Gujurat violence, will likely come away with a visceral sense of revulsion, 
without ever having encountered the first word about the B.J.P or R.S.S. It 
is characteristic of the worst abuses of historical example that they 
substitute straightforward appeal to emotion for information that risks 
giving the reader a broader view of the complications to which actual 
history is prone. 

To religion, economics, race and politics we may add a fifth component: 
historical consciousness. Its outlines may already be discerned in Mishra's 
account. We can supplement those suggestions with one of the first detailed 
investigations into the Gujurat riots, '"We Have No Orders to Save You': 
State Participation and Complicity In Communal Violence." 6 There we see 
the allegation of state complicity substantiated and expanded upon: in 
contradiction to their vocation, Gujurat police and security forces were 
ordered to stand idly by, refusing to help the victims of mob violence. 
Moreover, it presents the claim that, far from being the "spontaneous 
reaction" depicted in the official version of events, the attacks were planned 
well in advance, "and in close cooperation with officials of the Bharatiya 
Janata Party [...] state government." 

Of particular value to our inquiry is section VI of the report, "The Context 
of the Violence in Gujurat." There we learn that, since its founding in 1925, 
the R.S.S. has 

propagated a militant form of Hindu nationalism which it promotes 
as the sole basis for national identity in India. [...] Western thought 
and civilization are perceived as enemies of Hindu culture. Religions 
such as Islam and Christianity are depicted as alien to India, as they 
are seen as the religions of foreign invaders — the Mughals and the 

That last clause points to the importance of historical consciousness in the 
development of the notion of Hindutva, or Hindu national identity, so 
important to the R.S.S. The sangh parivar, representing the full family of 
Hindu nationalist groups started by members of the R.S.S., teaches a 
particular interpretation of Indian history. If we are to understand the role 
played by that interpretation in the Hindutva movement, we must bear in 
mind that India had long been the subject of imperial powers from without. 
It was during the reign of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858) that Islam took 
hold in Gujurat. The Mughals were followed by the British Empire 

6 Human Rights Watch, Vol. 14, No. 3(C), April 2002. 

22 Against the Irreligious Right 

(1858-1947), who introduced Christianity, and when India finally gained its 
independence in 1947, there were many nationalistic groups who saw the 
colonial periods as an intolerable interruption of national self-determination. 

We see this also reflected in the particulars of a previous outbreak of 
violence in Gujurat. As described by Mishra, the immediate issue that 
precipitated that violence was the B.J.P. campaign to replace a mosque in 
the town of Ayodhya with a temple commemorating the birthplace of the 
Hindu god Rama. On the surface of it, that may seem an explicitly religious 
conflict. Dennett lists it alongside ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the 
Taliban's destruction of the Bamyan statues of Buddha in 2001 as one "of 
the saddest spectacles of the last century," in which "zealots of all faiths 
have defiled their own shrines and holy places, and brought shame and 
dishonor to their causes, by their acts of fanatical loyalty." 7 It does not seem 
to have occurred to him that such episodes might instead indicate a division 
of loyalties, between religious principles and political goals. Mishra, by 
contrast, hints at the political exhortations that drove the Ayodhya violence. 
"Hindu nationalists," he writes, "have long claimed that the mosque that 
stood over the site was built in the 1 6 th century by the first Mogul emperor, 
Babur, as an act of contempt toward Hinduism. The mosque was a symbol 
of slavery and shame, B.J.P. leaders declared, and removing it and building 
a grand temple in its place was a point of honor for all Hindus." If the 
question, as Dennett so often asks, is Cui bono? then it can hardly be 
insignificant that the historical discourse that drove the cycle of attack and 
retaliation was spoken by those whose political interests would be served by 
it, namely "nationalists" and the B.J.P. Resistance to "foreign" religions 
becomes, in the Hindutva movement, a means of redressing India's 
historical loss of control over its own political and cultural destiny. 

It would be difficult to overstate the import of that historical perspective 
with regards to the Hindutva movement. Certainly it has played a 
significant role in shaping the sangh parivar's notion of Hindu identity, and 
through that sense of identity, its political ambitions. For the sangh parivar, 
nationalist self-determination means organizing around an authentically 
Indian identity, and since the Mughal and British Empires were foreign 
invasions, nothing associated with them can be regarded as authentically 
Indian. We can declare the Hindu-Muslim violence in Gujurat a strictly 
religious conflict only by ignoring the way in which the Hindutva historical 
perspective imbues those nominally religious identities with political and 
racial meaning. When a pioneer of the sangh parivar like Madhav Sadashiv 
Golwalkar (1906-1973) writes about Muslims and Christians as "invaders," 
it is safe to assume that he is less interested in the theological differences 

7 BtS, 256 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 23 

they have with Hindus than he is in the historical and political connotations. 
That politics of identity helps to explain how it was that Nathuram Godse, 
an R.S.S. activist, could justify to himself and other Hindutva advocates the 
assassination of a prominent Hindu like Mohandas Gandhi. The concessions 
Gandhi seemed ready to make with Pakistan threatened the hope of 
restoring chthonic responsibility for the destiny of the subcontinent to 
something approaching its pre -Mughal zenith. 

I have given that all too summary background on the historical 
consciousness underlying the Hindutva movement in part to indicate the 
way that a given historical narrative can be put to political use. As a prelude 
to our forthcoming inquiry into the affirmative elements of the New Atheist 
treatment of history, it is here worth noting how Harris develops the Gujurat 
example. Because The End of Faith never strays far from the apocalyptic 
motif, the example is rapidly, and perhaps mystifyingly, generalized. Within 
the same paragraph, Harris writes, "A nuclear war between India and 
Pakistan seems almost inevitable, given what most Indians and Pakistanis 
believe about the afterlife." 8 Three constant themes of Harris' variety of 
New Atheism are here given concrete form. The implicit sweeping away of 
all of the practical, political and historical concerns that have contributed to 
the fractured relations that prevail between the two states is the most 
immediate to our current analysis. Second is the association between 
religious belief and nuclear practice, a topic that will need to be revived in 
later essays. But it is the third, the chord struck by the word "inevitable," 
that sounds most clearly in the New Atheist treatment of history. 

Bearing in mind this comparison of Harris' account of the Gujurat riots 
with the account we find both in his sources and in readily available 
secondary sources, go back to the list with which he began his account. If 
we are not to avoid our responsibility to an intellectually honest inquiry, 
then we are compelled to ask in each case whether or not the pairs of 
religious groups presented in each set of parentheses deliberately masks a 
more complex array of factors, be they economic, ethnic, historical, political 
or some combination thereof. It may be easiest to start with those "cases in 
point" that Harris feels compelled to qualify with the proper names of 
national and ethnic groups, e.g. "Orthodox Serbians v. Catholic Croations; 
Orthodox Serbians v. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims." Is there not some 
tacit acknowledgment there that the causes of those conflict are more 
complex than their religious dimensions alone? Harris insists that, "In these 
places religion has been the explicit cause," but his assurance in the case of 
Gujurat has given us ample cause for doubt. 

8 TEoF, 27 

24 Against the Irreligious Right 

Even in the instances with no such qualifying adjectives, a closer look is 
warranted. For example, in Nigeria ("Muslims v. Christian," you might 
recall) an artificial distinction between "indigene" and "settler" is ingrained 
in the political system, and is used to restrict resources and deny political 
representation to Nigerians not regarded as indigenous. Among at least two 
of the recognized groups in the region, religious affiliation tends to parallel 
ethnic division. Muslim and Christian are categories far more familiar to 
Western readers than Igbo, Hausa-Fulani, and Yoruba, so the religious 
identification often serves as a journalistic short-hand for divisions that 
have as much to do with ethnic and political distinctions as they do with 
doctrinal differences. And because farming remains a primary form of 
livelihood in Nigeria, the stakes are high for those citizens who, branded as 
"settlers," are denied access to land. In light of those circumstances, the 
violence that has lately afflicted Nigeria becomes somewhat 
understandable, if no less repellant, but Harris' bare presentation gives us no 
inkling of them. 

At times Harris is content to let bare correlation stand in the place of a 
deeper inquiry into historical causes. "The Holocaust is relevant here," he 
insists, "because it is generally considered to have been an entirely secular 
phenomenon. It was not. The anti-Semitism that built the crematoria brick 
by brick - and that still thrives today - comes to us by way of Christian 
theology. Knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion." 9 The gist of 
his argument is that the long Christian resentment of the role traditionally 
ascribed to Jews in the trial and execution of Christ was directly inherited 
by the proponents of National Socialism. Without delving too deeply in 
what is an immensely complex subject, suffice it to suggest that Harris' 
interpretation raises difficulties of its own. For example, if anti-Semitism 
was the direct inheritance of Christian religious prejudice, why did it take so 
unprecedentedly virulent a form in the hands of the Nazis? Pogroms were a 
too common facet of medieval history, but for nearly 2,000 years, 
begrudging toleration and sometimes even integration was the norm rather 
than the exception. At the very least, the extent of the Holocaust requires an 
additional explanatory principle. But here is by no means any guarantee that 
straightforward inheritance of an ancient religious prejudice explains even 
the origin of modern anti-Semitism. Political theorist and German ex-patriot 
Hannah Arendt, for example, has argued that anti-Semitism represents a 
distinctly modern reaction to the rise of an economically mobile and 
politically stagnant middle class of secular ethnic Jews. 10 Acceptance of her 
analysis does not wholly exonerate European Christendom since its 

9 TEoF, 79 

10 The Origins of Totalitarianism, Vol. 1, Antisemitism, (Schocken:1951) 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 25 

ambivalence towards the Jews may still be credited with fostering the 
conditions, such as the Jewish ghetto, that lead to the emergence of the 
secular, ethnically Jewish bourgeois, but Harris' claim of a direct causal 
relationship between Christian religion and Nazi atrocity becomes 
untenable. The roots of Nazism are more accurately located in the modern 
and largely secular emergence of racial and nationalistic ideologies, which 
would no doubt be plain to Harris were he not already committed to the 
premise that religion "remains among the principle causes of armed conflict 
in our world." 11 

In his view, it likewise explains the creation of, and continuing Western 
support for, modern Israel. Thus, "For many years U.S. policy in the Middle 
East has been shaped, at least in part, by the interests that fundamentalist 
Christians have" in Zionism's purported capacity to "usher in both the 
Second Coming of Christ and the final destruction of the Jews." While it 
may certainly be true that some fundamentalist Christians support Israel for 
those reasons, that does not necessarily mean, as Harris suggests that it 
does, that U.S. policy in the Middle East has been shaped by those 
concerns. "Such smiling anticipations of genocide," as he would have it, 
"seem to have presided over the Jewish state from its first moments: the 
first international support for the Jewish return to Palestine, Britain's 
Balfour Declaration of 1917, was inspired, at least in part, by a conscious 
conformity to biblical prophecy." 12 

While it is true that two or three of the British politicians who lent their 
support to the Balfour declaration linked Zionist aims to Christian 
eschatology, the primary motivation for the Balfour Declaration was 
strategic, not religious. It was supposed that a friendly (or better: indebted) 
state in the Middle East would serve both as a buffer against Russian 
imperialism, as well as provide material support for British interests in the 
region. Far more operative than the religious beliefs of a David Lloyd 
George was the secular belief in the economic and political influence of 
international Jewry, the same sort of belief that presumably leads a 
rationalist like Dawkins to assert without citation that Jews "are notoriously 
one of the most effective political lobbies in the United States." 13 The 
simplest and most compelling explanation for both the Balfour Declaration 
and continuing U.S. support of Israel remains simply that Western powers 

11 TEoF, 77 

12 TEoF, 153 

13 TGD, 27 

26 Against the Irreligious Right 

derive a great deal of value from a strong but dependent ally in one of the 
most strategically and economically important regions on the planet. 14 


To spare the reader the tedium of being led through a similar exploration of 
each conflict named by Harris, those cases will have to stand as 
representative. I will not, I hope, risk losing the reader's trust by suggesting 
that such oversimplifications are a consistent feature of his use of historical 
example. Nor do we always find the New Atheists drawing a clear line 
between unintentional misrepresentation and the deliberate imposition of a 
biased interpretation on an unbiased account. To that end, we find, in the 
thirteenth chapter of God Is Not Great, a similar inquiry into the role played 
by religion in another recent historical conflict. The chapter is titled "Does 
Religion Make People Behave?" - though it is not clear how (or even if) 
Hitchens expects his examples to address that question. Near the end of the 
chapter he announces, "An even more graphic example is afforded by the 
case of Rwanda, which in 1 992 gave the world a new synonym for genocide 
and sadism." 15 A more graphic example of what, precisely, is not entirely 
clear from the context. Perhaps he means and example of religion failing to 
make people behave? Or perhaps he means, based on the preceding 
passages, a more graphic example of the damage done by true believers? 
Because the point is left so vague, it can be difficult to choose which 
intimation to address. This perhaps gives Hitchens' discussion of Rwanda 
the illusion of having demonstrated a point, without the inconvenience of 
actually having to do so. 

Nevertheless, after a summary account of the role played by several 
religious figures, Hitches declares that, "At a minimum, this makes it 
impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly 
or civilized manner." 16 At first blush he may seem to have established an 
effective refutation, but a refutation of what, and whom by? Has the 
Rwandan evidence been invoked to refute the argument that religion will 
compel all adherents to behave? I suspect that very few apologists would 
make so sweeping a claim in the first place. Were any foolish enough to do 
so, we have venerable answers like Torquemada already well established 

14 Cf. esp. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and 
the Creation of the Modern Middle East, David Fromkin (Henry Holt and 
15G/WG, 190 
16G/A/G, 192 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 27 

and hardly need the testimony of an Agathe Habyarimana or Father 
Munyeshyaka to laugh the suggestion out of consideration. 

The critical reader of God Is Not Great may at least take solace in the fact 
that Hitchens has been relatively specific about his source for much of the 
material in his discussion of Rwanda - a rarity for the author, who provides, 
far and away, the most sparse citations of any of the Four Horsemen. 
Knowing that the material is at least supposed to derive "primarily" from 
Philip Gourevitch's harrowing We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We 
Will Be Killed with Our Families 11 allows, if nothing else, a basis for 
comparison. The literature on the 1994 Rwandan genocides has grown 
steadily since the publication of Gourevitch's book, and we could, if we 
were so inclined, draw from a broader range of works in attempting to 
assess Hitchens' interpretation, but for the moment we may content 
ourselves with examining what Hitchens has claimed on the basis of We 
Wish to Inform You, in light of what we find there ourselves. 

Hitchens' account may be roughly divided into two parts. The first 
suggests the role religion played in setting the stage for genocide. Though 
the distinction is not entirely clear in God Is Not Great, his evidence 
concerns two separate charismatic movements that attracted some attention 
in the decade prior to the outbreak of violence. The first is the movement 
surrounding "Little Pebbles," a Catholic visionary who in 1987 predicted 
the apocalyptic return of Jesus. The second is a more influential series of 
visions, witnessed on a hill near Kibeho and attributed to the Virgin Mary, 
the most startling of which predicted bloodshed. That these two episodes 
make up nearly half of Hitchens' discussion on Rwanda should not mislead 
the reader into supposing that there is clear evidence of their role in 
motiving the violence to come. Yet Hitchens transitions to the violence itself 
by writing, "When the apocalyptic year of 1994 actually hit, and the 
premeditated and coordinated massacres began, many frightened Tutsi and 
dissident Hutu were unwise enough to try and take refuge in churches" 18 , as 
though the association between prophecy and policy should have been clear 
to the population at large. 

When we turn to Gourevitch's account, 19 we find little evidence in favor 
of the idea that these movements contributed greatly to the onset of 
violence. They are practically asides in Gourevitch's book, taking up hardly 
any more space there than they do in Hitchens much more abbreviate 
account of Rwanda. Even their association, which nevertheless remains 
rather confused in Hitchens' account, is highly uncertain. Hitchens' 

17 Picador: 1998 

18 G/A/G191 

19 Gourevitch, 78-79 

28 Against the Irreligious Right 

implication seems to be that Agathe Habyarimana, whose husband was 
president at the beginning of the genocide, and whose clan was one of the 
driving forces behind the violence, was in part motivated by her attraction 
to these movements. Gourevitch is less sanguine about the association 
between Little Pebbles and Le clan de Madame: "I can't say that 
Habyarimana ever read this forecast, only that it found its way into his 
household, and that it was close in spirit to the views that fascinated his 
powerful wife." 

If, in fact, the evidential basis for the claim that Lady Habyarimana was a 
devotee of Little Pebbles derives from We Wish to Inform You, it is slender 
indeed, since Gourevitch himself claims nothing more than that a photocopy 
of Little Pebbles' prophecy was given to him by a United Nations press 
officer who found it in the ruins of the Habyarimana estate. At any rate, by 
1994, when Hutu Power made its move, time had already invalidated the 
prophecies of Little Pebbles, which held that total nuclear war would 
catalyze the return of Christ on Easter Sunday of 1992. Lhe evidence in 
favor of Lady Habyarimana's association with the Marian visions at Kibeho 
proves more conclusive, but it remains to be proven whether her clan's role 
in the genocides was a product of her religious convictions, or whether, as 
seems more likely, the Kibeho visions were attractive to Habyarimana in 
part because they forecasted just the sort of violence she already anticipated. 

Why then do the Little Pebbles and Kihebo episodes warrant even a 
mention in so compressed an account as that which appears in God Is Not 
Great! One (perhaps ungenerous) answer is that, coupled with the absence 
of any other inquiry into the factors leading up to the genocides, they allow 
the reader to infer that religion played a greater role in motivating the 
violence than the rest of Grouetvitch's book would suggest. Reading 
Hitchens' chapter, one could easily come away with the impression that the 
Rwandan genocides were inspired by religious epiphany and organized 
primarily by Catholic clergy. He makes no mention of the "similar but less 
extensive massacres in the early 1960s" 20 ; of Operation Turquoise, the 
French military operation that aided the Hutu interahamwe in routing Lutsi 
resistance; or UNAMIR, the U.N. peacekeeping mission that lulled many 
Lutsi into a false sense of security. Nor does God Is Not Great consider the 
role of Radio Lelevision Libres des Milles Collines and other media outlets 
that were used to coordinate the violence, and which presaged the failure, if 
not downright complicity, of Western media and aid organizations in 
misrepresenting the Hutu exodus that followed. Absent as well is the 
condemnation that, when not focusing his ire on religion, Hitchens would 
normally heap on the hesitance of Western governments to frame the 

20 Gourevitch, 16 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 29 

massacres in terms that would justify to the international community any 
suggestion of intervention. His account, in fact, barely resembles the 
summary given in We Wish to Inform You. "Consider all the factors", writes 

the precolonial inequalities; the fanatically thorough and hierarchical 
centralized administration; the Hamitic myth and the radical 
polarization under Belgian rule; the killings and expulsions that began 
with the Hutu revolution of 1959; the economic collapse of the late 
1980s; Habyarimana's refusal to let the Tutsi refugees return; the 
multiparty confusion; the RPF attack; the "war; the extremism of 
Hutu Power; the propaganda; the practice massacres; the massive 
importation of arms; the threat to the Habyarimana oligarchy posed 
by peace through power sharing and integration; the extreme poverty, 
ignorance, superstition, and fear of a cowed, compliant cramped — 
and largely alcoholic — peasantry; the indifference of the outside 
"world. 21 

Here the role of religion is, at most, hinted at in words like "fanatically", 
"myth", and "superstition", but they must be interpreted heavily and given 
disproportionate emphasis to take on the importance they bear in Hitchens' 
account. The curious part played by certain clergymen and women in the 
Rwandan genocide is a thread woven into the length of Gourevitch's 
narrative, but at no point does he treat it as formative. Hutu Power, not the 
Church, drove the massacres. 

If we are feeling ungracious, we may suppose that Hitchens' decision to 
employ Rwanda as an object lesson was informed by the rhetorical 
opportunity presented by the country's religious demography. At one point 
he attempts to build a correlation by claiming that, "the chances that a 
person committing the crimes was 'faith-based' was almost 100 percent, 
while the chances that a person of faith was on the side of humanity and 
decency were about as good as the odds of a coin flip." 22 Statistically, it is 
only to be expected that, in purportedly the "most Christian country in 
Africa," 23 a significant proportion of the crimes committed there will be 
attributable to religious believers. It should likewise come as no surprise 
that, when massacres have taken place in regions with larger secular 
populations, such as Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the perpetrators 

21 Gourevitch, 180 
22 GING, 192 
23 G/A/G, 190 

30 Against the Irreligious Right 

have generally been less consistently religious. It cuts to the heart of the 
matter to insist, rather, that those involved in the Rwandan massacres were 
much more likely to be convinced of the artificial and politically charged 
distinction between Hutu and Tutsi than they were of, say, the benevolence 
of God or the efficacy of the sacraments. 

The remainder of Hitchens' account concentrates on the figures of more 
orthodox religious authorities who, their supposed moral authority not 
withstanding, have been credibly accused with facilitating, if not directly 
participating in, the massacres. The first of these is Monsignor Vincent 
Nsengiyumva, Bishop of the Rwandan capital city Kigali and a member of 
the central committee of the now outlawed National Republican Movement 
for Democracy and Development, which furnished so many of the architects 
of the genocide; second is Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka of the Cathedral 
of Saint Famille; the last is Bishop Augustin Misago of Gikongoro in the 
southwestern corner of the country. In June of 2000 (a full seven years 
before the publication of God Is Not Great), a Rwandan court acquitted 
Misago of charges of complicity in the genocides. Munyeshyaka was 
convicted in absentia; French authorities arrested him in 2007, and in 2008 
announced their intention to conduct their own trial of the accused. Tutsi 
rebels killed Nsengiyumva in the July of 1 994, holding him responsible for 
the deaths of family members; whether or not the accusation against him in 
that particular case would have held up under closer scrutiny, his part in the 
politics that gave rise to the genocide is well attested in the historical 

For at least two of the three, then, I see no point in disputing the charge of 
complicity. Granting that quorum, we can at least admit the pertinence of 
Rwanda to the question at hand. Yet, when viewed in something closer to its 
full historical detail, the example proves, in some regards, as complex as 
that of the 1992 Gujurat riots. To treat that complexity with the seriousness 
it deserves makes it exceedingly difficult to draw any simple and clear cut 
conclusions. As it stands, Hitchens manages to convey a general sense of 
condemnation, but loses the more precise critique in anti-climax. 

He does so in part by tidily omitting the heroic counterparts to the 
Munyeshyakas of the genocide, men like Father Dhelo, superior of a 
monastery in Mokoto Zaire who, when confronted with hundreds of 
refugees fleeing from Rwanda, "did not hesitate to take them in.'- 4 The 
decision was taken at great risk since Father Dhelo "knew that in 1994 the 
genocidaires had not hesitated to violate the sanctuary of churches in 
Rwanda" 25 and that their Zairean allies were now working to create a Hutu 

24 Gourevitch, 277 

25 Gourevitch, 278 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 32 

Power base in his own country. Father Dhelo refused to turn over the 
refugees in his care even when threatened with death, and the genocidaires 
were forced to postpone their attack on the camp until Father Dhelo was 
away on business several months later. 

It would be all of a piece with his treatment of prior examples to assume 
that Hitchens would dismiss a counter-example like Father Dhelo by 
denying that his religion had anything to do with his heroism, much as he 
has argued that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. struggled against segregation in 
spite of his religion, rather than in concert with it. 26 As it stands, Hitchens 
himself makes no argument whatsoever, since the Father Dhelo story is left 
entirely out of account. He has, instead, constructed a very narrow historical 
narrative, not only by choosing to include certain marginal details, like 
Little Pebbles, over other details that are arguably more germane, like 
Father Dhelo, but also by glossing over the central themes of the source 
from which he draws those details. 


Nor are the New Atheist more reliable regarding the more remote events of 
religious history. At the beginning of a consideration of monotheism, 
Dawkins writes that, "During the Roman occupation of Palestine, 
Christianity was founded by Paul of Larsus as a less ruthlessly montheistic 
sect of Judaism and a less exclusive one, which looked outwards from the 
Jews to the rest of the world." 27 Dawkins does not mention that the 
hypothesis, that Paul founded Christianity ad initio, is a controversial one. 
Many of its partisans seem to prefer it mostly because it implicitly denies 
that the church originated with Jesus, whom Christians name as the founder 
of the religion. Assuming that Paul was the sole founder mitigates the need 
for supposing that there were any Christians, or even a Christ, prior to Paul. 
Here Dawkins hedges his bets, suggesting that it is "possible to mount a 
serious, though not widely supported historical case that Jesus never lived at 
all," but nevertheless averring that "Jesus probably existed." 28 On what 
evidence, then, does Dawkins attribute the founding of the religion to Paul? 
Certainly not on Paul's own testimony, since he attests to the widespread 
existence of Christian churches prior to his own conversion. 29 

26 See "A Drawing of Lines" for more on King Jr. 

27 TGD, 58 

28 TGD, 122 
29 Galatians 1:13-23 

c>2 Against the Irreligious Right 

So far as Dawkins is concerned, Christianity was "spread by the sword, 
wielded first by Roman hands after the Emperor Constantine raised it from 
eccentric cult to official religion, then by the Crusaders, and later by the 
conquistadores and other European invaders and colonists, with missionary 
accompaniment." 30 That he can so easily condense 2,000 years of complex 
history to a single sentence ought to indicate the two-dimensionality of such 
a view. Yet some such version of events is almost de rigueur for New 
Atheist accounts of the spread of religion. An even cursory examination of 
the history of early Christianity reveals that its earliest gains were made not 
by the sword, but in spite of it. The Christianity inherited by Constantine 
was already popular and widespread, and much of what the New Atheists 
cite as the installation of Christianity as the official religion of Rome was, in 
fact, the repeal of laws hostile to the still young religion. The exaggerated 
importance of Constantine's elevation of Christianity above its prior 
persecution may be the legacy of a document known as the Donation of 
Constantine, by which Constantine purportedly transferred authority over 
Rome to Pope Sylvester I. It has been known since at least the 15 th century 
that the Donation was a forgery, but the legend of Constantine's declaration 
of a Christian Rome has persisted nonetheless. In fact, Roman paganism 
remained so potent a political force in the Empire even after Constantine's 
repeals that the Emperor gave Rome over to the largely pagan Senate in 
order to establish a second capital at Constantinople. So tenuous was 
Christianity's hold in the following decades that, had he not died in battle 
attempting to push back the Sassanid Empire from the Empire's Persian 
borders, the Emperor Julian (called the Apostate) might have succeeded in 
extirpating Christianity and reestablishing paganism as the official religion 
of the Empire. The leap from Constantine to the Crusades leaves out of 
account no less than seven centuries, during which Christianity made some 
of its most significant gains on the strength of evangelism. The ironic 
precedent that made the Crusades possible was the Peace and Truce of God, 
a Christian movement that sought to curb the violent excesses of the martial 
classes of feudal society through non-violent means. 

Harris concludes a section on the use of judicial torture during the 
European witch crazes by noting that, "The church did not officially 
condemn the use of torture until the bull of Pope Pius VII in 1816." 31 That 
may be true, but in failing to mention that the use of judicial torture was 
itself a 12 th century reversal of a long-standing opposition to torture, Harris 
tells less than half of the story. The era of judicial torture marks a 
particularly dark period of the history of Christianity, but it also represents 

30 TGD, 58 

31 TEoF, 92 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 33 

less than a third of that history, and not, as an uninformed reader of The End 
of Faith might suppose, all but the last two centuries of it. 

A similar inference could be made by Harris' account of the beginnings of 
the intellectual resistance to the witch crazes. "After nearly four hundred 
years," he tells us, "some ecclesiastics began to appreciate how insane all 
this was." 32 After four hundred years of what, Harris does not quite specify. 
Ecclesiastical approval of the witch trials was by and large limited to the 
16 th and 17 th centuries, and the historical record shows that the clergy was 
divided over the issue from the very start. Harris' own example of an 
ecclesiastical dissenter, Frederick Spee, died in 1635, so if we are to believe 
that represents the end of four centuries of doctrinal credulity, then we 
ought also to settle on the 1 3 th century as the beginning of the witch crazes. 
There is, however, no evidence to support that. As Hugh Trevor-Roper 33 
explains, throughout most of the medieval period it was the official policy 
of the church that belief in witchcraft violated Catholic doctrine. That 
circumstance did not change until the end of the 1 5 th century when Pope 
Innocent VIII issued a bull, Summis Desiderantes Affectibus, authorizing the 
Dominicans to halt the spread of witchcraft in Germany. All signs of the 
millennium and a half in which the church lent its weight against the 
recurrent popular belief in witchcraft is lost somewhere between the lines of 
Harris' account. "Four centuries" out of the twenty so far allotted to 
Christianity are presented as indicative of the dangers of religion, and the 
Medieval and Renaissance periods are conflated even though the witch- 
crazes themselves were almost wholly restricted to the Enlightenment. 

Perhaps a sympathetic reader could partially excuse these lapses, since, in 
contrast to that of the Gujurat example, Harris' sources in this case seem to 
have provided him with little evidence of the real complexity of the topic. 
Trevor-Roper stands at the beginning of a minor revolution in historical 
inquiries into witch-crazes on either side of the Atlantic, and an investigator 
with no access to later twentieth century historians like John Demos, Robin 
Briggs, or Frances Hill would be forced to choose primarily between highly 
partisan accounts, many of them afflicted by an anti-Catholic bias. Harris, 
for example, quotes Bertrand Russell's Religion and Science 34 on the 
dangers that faced skeptics of witch belief and Charles McCay's 
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds 35 for an 
example of the distortion of reason caused by belief in the supernatural. 

32 TEoF, 90 

33 The European Witch-Crazes of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 

34 1935 

35 1841! 

24 Against the Irreligious Right 

True, he also draws material from Robin Briggs' much more modern 
Witches and Neighbors, 3,6 but only to present a single anecdote as 
"typical." 37 In doing so, he quickly irons out the complexities that are the 
hard-earned achievement of Briggs' scholarship. Harris might better have 
described his choice of examples as "stereotypical." 

A preference for sources that stand in confirmation of simple, biased 
perceptions of history manifests itself in much of New Atheist thought. 
Harris, for example, also cites Voltaire - not exactly a neutral authority - as 
a principle source on religious history. In fleshing out the Middle Ages, he 
makes use of William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire, 38 a modern 
book that not only reprises the cliches of 1 9 th century historical chauvinism 
but also makes a number of glaring factual errors. Dawkins' cites the (no 
doubt unbiased) website All four of the Horsemen cite 
themselves and one another as sources, as well as authors, like Michael 
Shermer and Steven Pinker, whom have since served on the Project Reason 
advisory board. It is not always clear whether or not a New Atheist citation 
to a biased or discredited source should be chalked up to a mere overzealous 
adherence to a shaky premise rather, or to simple source credulity. 

As with their presentation of historical events in the modern era, the New 
Atheist accounts of the written history of religious traditions tends to be 
highly selective in concert with an interpretation of the meaning of those 
traditions. Not one of the six books by the Four Horsemen so much as 
mentions the Peace and Truce of God. We find few mentions of liberation 
theology, an important modern movement that interprets Christian theology 
in terms of the historical and international human rights struggle; the most 
direct are in God Is Not Good, and serve only to connect this "bizarre 
mutation" 39 to Cuban socialism and to Japan's membership in the Nazi/ 
Fascist axis of World War II. 40 Their marginalization of those two isolated 
examples cannot, of course, count as an indictment, as though failure to 
devote sufficient attention to liberation theology or the Peace and Truce of 
God were sufficient to discredit their opinion. They merely represent the 
omission of an entire category of relevant evidence. Any event in which 
religious institutions contribute to the well-being of society, anything that 
might suggest that religion has the welfare of people in mind, or that 
religious institutions are limited in their ability even where they might wish 
to change the circumstances of history - in short, anything that might serve 

36 Harper Collins: 1996 

37 TEoF, 88 

38 Little, Brown & Co:1 992 

3 9 GING, 247 

40 GING, 203 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 35 

as counterpoint to the thesis that religion is inherently poisonous - gets left 
out of account. But scrupulous inattention to the exceptions marks only the 


Because it so rarely deals with the same spans of history, Dennett's 
Breaking the Spell may seem, at first blush, exempt from this sort of 
scrutiny. There are minor infractions, but even where he errs on the modern 
era, the points he establishes thereby are mostly ancillary. In fact, though he 
was initially spoken of as a New Atheist along with the other Horsemen, 
later commentators have gradually taken to omitting Dennett's name from 
the roll, and (for more precise reasons) we might have done the same except 
for his inquiry into the origins of religion. His treatment of that subject not 
only proves consonant with the New Atheist treatment of the recorded 
history of religion; it improves upon it by making indifference to human 
welfare a critical explanatory feature. 

Some account of the origin of the phenomenon of religion appears in each 
of the New Atheist accounts; Dennett presents only the most involved. 
Harris tends to represent it mostly in asides, or in the words that he chooses 
to characterize early religious belief, as when he writes, "Occult beliefs of 
this sort are clearly an inheritance from our primitive, magic-minded 
ancestors." 41 Hitchens supposes that, "if we watch the process of religion in 
its formation, we can make some assumptions about the origins of those 
religions that were put together before most people could read." 42 Modern 
anthropology has long since repudiated that premise, yet three of the four 
authors reprise that fallacy by inquiring into Cargo Cults as though it were 
clear that the same conclusions would apply in the case of much more 
ancient religious traditions. Dawkins' account of the general history of 
religion bears a marked resemblance to Dennett's. Each of the accounts 
given by all four authors entails some version of the genetic fallacy, 
whereby the origin of a thing is taken to discredit the thing itself. Dennett's 
account elevates that fallacy to an explanatory model. 

41 TEoF, 89 
42 G/A/G, 155 

36 Against the Irreligious Right 

Perhaps because they have both built careers out of evangelizing broad 
interpretations of the importance of evolutionary theory, 43 Dennett and 
Dawkins seem to have felt obliged to address the suggestion that religion is, 
in some way or another, useful, perhaps even essential, to human existence. 
The premise that natural selection ruthlessly weeds out inutile adaptations 
requires them to account for the relatively long survival of religion in the 
face of pressures that ought, if religion truly is an impediment, to have made 
short work of it. Without supposing that it was wholly motivated by the 
demands of maintaining both positions - that is, both the validity of 
evolutionary theory and the ultimate disposability of religion - we may 
nonetheless note that it would be difficult to avoid bringing them into 
logical contradiction without something like the strategy they adopt. The 
premise they both present is that religion arises as a byproduct of human 
traits that are robust enough to withstand pressures that might otherwise 
naturally select against a tendency as evolutionarily "expensive" as 
religion. 44 

On the face of it, Dennett seems fully prepared to conform to the 
demands of a rigorous scientific inquiry. "The spell that I say must be 
broken," he declares, "is the taboo against a forthright, scientific, no-holds- 
barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many." 45 
By that, he seems to mean specifically the sort of functionalist explanations 
preferred by evolutionary biologists. Briefly put, "A social historian or an 
anthropologist who knows a great deal about the beliefs and practices of 
people all around the world but is naive about evolution is equally unlikely 
to frame the issues well." 46 That interpretation would, on the whole, square 
with his reputation as the foremost advocate of a Universal Darwinism, the 
view that Darwin's theory of evolution represents an algorithm that can be 
applied in fields far removed from their original, biological context. The 
middle third of the book is given over to telling "the best current version of 
the story science can tell about how religions have become what they are." 47 
But even that, he insists, is only an exploratory foray. Throughout the early 
chapters of Breaking the Spell he insists that the intent of his argument is to 
pave the way for more rigorous inquiry than has been conducted so far. 

43 cf. eg. Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of 
Life (Simon & Schuster: 1995). Evolution is central to Dawkins' entire 
bibliography, but starting with The Blind Watchmaker he has tended more 
towards a Dennett-esque emphasis on Universal Darwinism. 

44 TGD, chapter 5 
^BtS, 17 
46 SfS, 104 
47 SfS, 103 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 37 

Only on the other side of a rigorous process of testing the hypotheses that 
presume to explain religion should we draw any hard and fast conclusions. 

We need not here evaluate the ultimate viability of religion-as-byproduct 
explanations. For the moment, it should suffice to note, first of all, that their 
adoption seems to prejudge the question of whether or not religion has any 
intrinsic value. In other words, the decision to focus exclusively on 
byproduct explanations suggests that both Dawkins and Dennett have 
already ruled out the possibility that religion pays for its own survival. 
Secondly, the task of maintaining some such explanation entails a heavy 
burden of proof. 

In light of those two considerations, it is worth asking whether a scientist 
or philosopher who felt no vested interest in the moral value of religion - 
that is, an observer whose sole interest was in explaining the survival of 
religion - would stumble on Dennett's account as the most likely 
explanation for the survival of religion. Or would she discern the burden of 
proof entailed by such an account and set Breaking the Spell aside in order 
to consider some possibilities not burdened by its complications? In 
suggesting the latter, it should not be supposed that I would altogether rule 
out the sort of explanation offered by Dennett; a heuristic like Ockham's 
razor only directs us down the route of least complication so long as a 
simpler hypothesis can account for what we actually observe. If we can find 
no simpler hypotheses to account for the growth of religion, then the 
byproduct account becomes, by process of elimination, a better bet. 

But concerning that aforementioned burden of proof: because 
evolutionary theory has, at least since its first stirrings in the mind of 
Darwin, flirted with economic metaphor, we may present it in terms of 
exchange. To justify the suggestion that religion has only resisted naturally 
selective pressures against it because it is a persistent byproduct of 
evolutionary advantageous traits, it is necessary to demonstrate that those 
traits are so robust that they can overcome the evolutionary debt incurred by 
their association with religion. Taking the analogy a step further, if it cannot 
be demonstrated that those traits generate enough capital to sustain that 
debt, then what reason do we have to suppose that religion survives only on 
the strength of that association? 

In Dennett's account, the capital that sustains religion's debt is generated 
by our capacity for cognizing other things as agents. By seeing some other 
thing as an agent motivated by beliefs, desires and rationales, we are made 
capable of "adopting the intentional stance" which allows us to anticipate, 
to varying degrees of success, behavior that impacts our odds of surviving 
long enough to pass our genes on to another generation. The intentional 
stance allows species that are capable of adopting it to develop complex 
behaviors like hunting and, at higher orders of anticipation, intentional 

g8 Against the Irreligious Right 

lying. Such complex behaviors pay for their investment of time, effort and 
resources by allowing the agent to survive in increasingly complex 

So far, so good. On its own, the evolutionary /economic logic of agency 
detection seems to account for its own persistence over time, and it is in that 
capacity that Dennett refers to it as a "Good Trick." But how good? It 
apparently generates enough capital to pay for its own persistence, but does 
it generate enough surplus to afford a few luxuries as well? Dennett's 
account suggests that it does and, drawing on the research of Justin Barrett, 
he points to one way in which that capital is spent - namely, in the 
hypersensitive agent detection device. Dennett's example is that of a dog 
that "leaps up and growls when some snow falls off the eaves with a thud 
that rouses him from his nap". 48 To wit, the HADD may be described as a 
lack of rigor in our capacity for assigning agency, and the dog in the 
example may be described as "manifesting a 'false positive' orienting 
response triggered by his HADD." 

In Dennett's account the earliest behaviors tending toward religion are a 
byproduct of false positives generated by our HADD, whereby we find it 
difficult to withdraw our attribution of agency to former agents. 49 Thus, 
when a person dies, we tend to continue to regard them as an agent with an 
active stake in our behavior. Our persistent attachment to the dead draws us 
into conflict with another advantageous psychological reflex, the instinctual 
repulsion to corpses that preserves us from the diseases that result from 
contact with putrefaction. "What seems to have evolved everywhere," goes 
Dennett's hypothesis, 

is an elaborate ceremony that removes the dangerous body from the 
daily environment either by burial or burning, combined with the 
interpretation of the persistent firing of the intentional-stance habits 
shared by all "who know the deceased as the unseen presence of the 
agent as a spirit, a sort of virtual person created by the survivors' 
troubled mind-sets, and almost as vivid and robust as a live person. 

That this explanation entails a number of economic complications seems to 
have given Dennett very little pause. For anyone hoping to maintain it, the 
first difficulty is that the HADD already imposes a debt on the Good Trick 
of agency detection. The dog that barks at anything that might be an agent 
runs the risk of attracting dangerous predators. The more it does so, the less 
likely it is to pass on its HADD to another generation, and so we ought to 

48 SfS, 109 
49 SfS, 112-114 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 39 

expect a species to maintain only as strong a habit for chasing after false 
positives as it is capable of paying for with the capital generated by the 
advantages of agency detection. How then do we account for the 
development of minds so eager to detect agency that they positively must 
evolve something like proto-religion to prevent them from running afoul of 
extinction by their inability to give up the dead? Presumably the 
evolutionary debt generated by the dog's tendency to bark at most anything 
is paid for by the times when its HADD gives it enough advance warning to 
avoid real threats to its life or capitalize on opportunities to reproduce. A 
more complex accounting is required to the balance the ledger when the 
capital accrued through the advantages of agency detection must pay not 
only the debts of a hypersensitivity unmatched in most other species, but 
also of the incredibly expensive edifice of ritual purportedly evolved to 
keep us from unintentionally killing ourselves. And yet, funeral 
arrangements are a bargain in the grand scheme of things. As Dennett 
explains, "This still doesn't get our ancestors to religion, but it gets them to 
persistent - even obsessive - rehearsal and elaboration of some of their 
habits of thought." 50 By the time he gets to animism, that debt has grown 
exponentially. If we take his preceding discussion of the importance of 
evolutionary accounting seriously, then we cannot help but expect natural 
selection to have cut off at the stem such an expensive (and, therefore, 
unlikely) tendency to manifest false positives. 

No doubt Dennett would argue that he means to set none of this in stone. 
Yet we find him in the process of building an edifice that needs a stone 
foundation. With each level he adds to that structure, the disjunction grows 
between the use to which Dennett puts his inquiry and occasional reminders 
like, "I am not at all claiming that this is what science has already 
established about religion." 51 Dawkins makes a similar disclaimer, but The 
God Delusions comparatively abbreviated account of byproduct-oriented 
explanation adheres more closely to that spirit. It commits less, and remains 
more flexible. Even with an explanatory concept of his own design, like the 
meme, Dawkins seems reluctant to take any more definite stand than that 
religion is likely a byproduct rather than an adaptation. Dennett, on the 
other hand, seems unwilling to content himself with a mere placeholder. 
Mixed in with such elaborately intertwining conjecture, those disclaimers 
begin to resemble a case of protesting overmuch. 

It is characteristic of his style to begin by suggesting an explanatory 
principle on the premise that it might prove fruitful; to then argue that his 
reader ought, in the spirit of mutual inquiry, grant that principle long enough 

50 BtS, 114 

51 BtS, 103 

zfO Against the Irreligious Right 

to consider its implications; to use that principle as a foundation on which to 
build an elaborate explanation; and, finally, to draw conclusions from that 
structure of argument as though we could reasonably take it as established. 
Thus we are rapidly guided from unsubstantiated claim to unsubstantiated 
claim - from the suggestion that all intrinsic values begin as instrumental 
values, 52 to the introduction of memes as a cultural analogue of genetic 
replication, 53 standing in support of his insistence on cui bono reasoning as 
the final criteria for assessing the validity of an explanation, 54 to the 
assertion (introduced without preface and upheld without demonstration) 
that, "The first thing we have to understand about human minds as suitable 
homes for religion is how our minds understand other minds!", 55 and so on 
and so forth. Does it really make sense to "sketch a whole story now" in 
order to "get something on the table that is both testable and worth 
testing?" 56 Or does it seem more likely that Dennett presents that story in its 
entirety because he would like to see it, or something very much like it, 
accepted wholesale by the reader? An incremental approach, in which 
discreet hypotheses are tested and the whole story assembled from the 
pieces that survive that process, would seem more rational. 

It should be plain that the long chains of supposition preferred by Dennett 
square less with his caution that "we don't want to waste time barking up 
the wrong trees" than it does with the clause that precedes it: "The form our 
questions take opens up some avenues and closes off others..." 57 From the 
apparently casual suggestion that HADD lies at the root of human religion, 
Dennett not only teases out an entire capsule history of the development of 
religion, but also takes the wholly unwarranted step of suggesting social and 
governmental policy on the basis of that structure of argument. It might well 
be asked what business a chapter like "Now What Do We Do" has in a book 
that purports to draw no conclusions on the value of religion. That crucial 
turn in the method of Breaking the Spell will be dealt with in more detail in 
the essay on "The Irreligious Right"; I bring it up now only to suggest that 
an account ceases to qualify as a simple thought experiment once the 
narrator sees fit to use it as the basis for policy. 

For the moment, the intent is not even to show that Dennett's account 
may be incorrect. Rather, the point to be considered is that he has employed 
a form of explanation (and, in doing so, borrowed the contemporary 

52 BtS, 69 

53 BtS, 81 

54 BtS, 82 

55 BtS, 108 

56 BtS, 103-104 

57 BtS, 19 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 41 

prestige of evolutionary biology) in order to present the history of religion 
as a biological and psychological process. This, too, represents a flattening 
of historical perspective, though one that is perhaps less obvious than that 
which afflicts New Atheist accounts of written history. Already by the end 
of Chapter Five we begin to see the development of doctrine presented not 
as the result of the sort of debate and compromise we see in, for example, 
the canonization of the New Testament, but rather as the collation of 
statistical averages. Perhaps the apotheosis of the process Dennett has in 
mind is religion's purported "inclusion of incomprehensible elements," 58 a 
"design feature" that would seem to stand in direct contradiction to his 
earlier claim that counterintuitive ideas "that aren't readily classifiable at all 
because they are too nonsensical can't hold their own in the competition for 
attention." 59 Nevertheless, Dennett posits that incomprehensible elements 
could help the transmission of a creed or ritual by forcing the participants 
"to fall back on 'direct quotation' in circumstances where they might 
otherwise be tempted to use 'indirect quotation' and just transmit the gist of 
the occasion 'in their own words' - a dangerous source of mutation." 60 
Nothing may seem unreasonable about that suggestion so long as you 
adhere strictly to the meme's-eye perspective that Dennett suggests as the 
only way to understand the development of religion, but there remains the 
question of explaining how a species pays for the evolutionary debt incurred 
by transmitting memes that are incomprehensible and presumably of no 
value to the species itself. Indeed, if you wanted to maintain the argument 
that some doctrinal or ritual elements of religion convey no meaning and 
have no instrumental purpose, it would be very much to your advantage to 
provide in advance an explanation for how those vestiges could survive. 


To suppose that his historical account of religion has been overtly shaped in 
anticipation of the ends to which Dennett ultimately puts it may well 
presume too much. It is enough to note that some of his conclusions would 
be more difficult to maintain with any degree of logical consistency without 
a perspective that frames the development of religion as functional unity. 
Something like Dennett's prehistory of religion figures at least implicitly in 
most New Atheist accounts, typically with the suggestion that it leads 
directly into the sort of inquiry we see in Harris' account of Gujurat. No 

58 BtS, 150 

59 BtS, 119 

60 BtS, 150 

42 Against the Irreligious Right 

doubt Hitchens would see affinities between Dennett's account of early 
religious ritual and the visions of Little Pebbles presaging the violence in 

Here we begin to leave the realm of perception and enter that of 
discourse. Such gestures at an unspoken complete history of religion marks 
a shift in method, from the sins of omission that make up the negative face 
of New Atheist historicism, to a positive face that in some sense deserves to 
be called doctrinal. Whereas Hitchens imparted a significant role to religion 
in the Rwandan genocides mostly by passing over the greater part of the 
relevant detail, Dennett is self-consciously providing it with a history. 
Inference could be relied upon to do most of the work in the case of 
Gujurat; here, interpretation takes over. By leaving out of account certain 
relevant details, Rwanda can be made to resemble an object lesson in the 
evils of religion; the genetic case, by contrast, is made by filling in the holes 
in our knowledge with so much speculative caulk. 

In the end analysis, it may prove no coincidence that the Horsemen who 
devote the most effort to tracing out the origins of religion happen to draw, 
by contrast, fewer examples from more recent history. While the difference 
in focus may seem to indicate two different purposes at work - the D-camp 
committing itself to the task of explaining the persistence of religion, while 
the H-camp divulges the moral meaning of recorded history - it seems to 
me that each camp has bent their material to essentially the same end. For 
H-camp, the isolated example divulges, pars pro toto, the form to which all 
religious history conforms. Thus, an individual instance like the Spanish 
Inquisition is, in one sense, only a window into the enduring nature of 
religion itself. For D-camp, speculation about the origins of religion 
confirms that nature, and predicts the form that religion will take in 
instances that are, from the theoretical point of view, pro forma. Thus, a 
signal vibrating along the thin cord that issues from the first stirrings of 
preliterate animism may be discerned where it attaches to an event like the 
destruction of the World Trade Center Towers. 

It is, in other words, not enough to draw dubious conclusions about the 
phenomenon of religion based on a few patchy accounts. To earn the name 
New Atheist, a student of history must posit something like an overarching 
structure to the history of religion. The New Atheist does not stop until the 
Ecrasez I'infdme! of Voltaire finds its roots in d'Holbach's insistence that, 
"By tracing the history of the human mind, we shall be easily convinced, 
that Theology has cautiously guarded against its progress." 61 

That unified history is, at best, merely retrogressive, but comes more fully 
into its own when it counterpoises secular progress with pious 

61 Good Sense, §199 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 43 

conflagration. When others seem to see religion contributing to human 
progress, they are mistaken. Mohandas Gandhi was "in a sense pushing at 
an open door" 62 in his efforts to secure independence for India, since the 
course of history had already tilted towards that end. Bad enough that the 
man's efforts were needless, but as Hitchens explains, 

it was precisely his religious convictions that make his legacy a 
dubious rather than a saintly one. To state the matter shortly: he 
wanted India to revert to a village -dominated and primitive 
"spiritual" society, he made power sharing with the Muslims much 
harder, and he "was quite prepared to make hypocritical use of 
violence when he thought it might suit him. 

That last charge, incidentally, concerns Gandhi's timing in calling for the 
British to quit India. Hitchens notes that it came just as Japan was 
conquering Malaya and Burma, and suggests that this amounts to Gandhi 
"letting the Japanese imperialists do his fighting for him." 63 Presumably, he 
should have waited until there were no other pressures so that the British 
Empire could withdraw on political and religious scruple alone. 

Such cases are, for Hitchens, emblematic of the religious use of historical 
example as a tool of apologetic. Likewise, the way he dispatches with each 
may be taken as representative of a range of strategies for flattening the 
undulations of religious history into a smooth retrograde trajectory. 
Whenever religion appears to play a part in positive social change, the 
religious aspect masks a secular intent; if that argument cannot be made to 
match the evidence, then the worth of the apparently sincere religious 
reformer must have been grossly overestimated; or else appearances have 
deceived us, and a closer look will reveal all such triumphs as tragedies in 

By the reverse process, apparently secular obstacles to the moral progress 
of civilization can be revealed, on closer examination, as examples of covert 
religiosity. Thus we find the title of Arthur Koestler's The God that Failed 
taken as a reliable index of the sort of belief that supported the worst 
excesses of state Communism. Harris gives most emphasis to the arguments 
that a phrase like "the cult of Stalin" was in no sense ironic, despite the 
avowed atheism of those who belonged to it, and that some of the most 
widespread state-sponsored atrocities of the 20 th century were, in fact, the 
result of uniquely modern religions. "Even explicitly anti-Christian 

62 G/A/G, 182 
63 GING, 183 

44 Against the Irreligious Right 

movements, as in the cases of German Nazism and Russian socialism, 
managed to inherit and enact the doctrinal intolerance of the church," he 
writes 64 , as though the unity of religious history naturally encompassed 
even the declared enemies of religion - though, of course, only those 
enemies that dabbled in atrocity. It would be going too far to consider the 
proposition that the New Atheist's own rejection of religion is, likewise, the 
inheritance of "the doctrinal intolerance of the church." 

It should hardly need pointing out that, when you play so loosely with the 
concept of religion, history can be molded into nearly any shape desired. If 
the "worship" of an ideal like state socialism can be taken as an example of 
the corruptions of religious belief, then why should we hesitate to call 
Patrick Henry's "give me liberty, or give me death" a sermon favorable to 
martyrdom in the name of a religious ideal? At times, the New Atheists' 
criteria for drawing the boundaries of religious belief threatens to burst the 
seams of the concept of religion. In their hands, nearly any decisive belief 
could become either religious or secular, depending on the demands of their 
historical account. In the end, it seems, the only thing that gives the criteria 
internal coherence is the moral value they place on it: in the absence of a 
more identifiable feature, all negative examples are deemed religious, and 
all positive examples, secular. 

A fuller examination of the question of how the New Atheist's define 
religion will have to wait for a later essay; the immediate point is only that a 
certain flexibility in how they identify it in historical examples allows them 
to confirm the perception that religion constitutes a persistently 
counterproductive force. At the far extremes, that perception melds into a 
thoroughly ideological conception of the unity of history itself. That 
conception takes two roughly distinguishable forms, that of, on the one 
hand, the notion of ideal history, and on the other, of the doctrine of 
Progress. Both have their roots in the Enlightenment. 

We are, perhaps, most familiar with the notion of ideal history by its 
expression in Marxist theory. History, as Marx would have it, is inexorably 
canted towards a benevolent anarchism, but must first pass through the 
dialectical stages of capitalism and socialism. But Marx received the notion 
of the dialectical progression of ideal history from the German philosopher 
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Marxism was neither the only nor the 
most recent flowering of Hegel's work. Though overtly opposed to 
Marxism, the neoconservative movement in American politics also takes its 
direction from the Hegelian notion of history as a process with a distinct 
and predictable final state, concluding in a political system upon which no 
improvement could be made. For the neoconservatives, that final state is 

64 TEoF, 100 

The Flattening df Historical Perspective 45 

Western Liberalism, and they take it as the moral and political obligation of 
the states that already embody that ideal to export it to populations still 
stuck in dialectically earlier stages of the historical progress. It may, then, 
be no mere coincidence that we find the title of one of the key documents of 
philosophical Neoconservatism, Francis Fukuyama's "The End of 
History?" 65 , echoed by Sam Harris' The End of Faith. The two also share, in 
significant ways, similar approaches to history, locating in the growth of 
17 th and 18 th century Rationalism the beginnings of a historical process that 
ends in the triumph of Liberalism over despotism. Particularly in Harris' 
account, Reason serves as an extra-historical process that, when dominant, 
drives history towards an inevitable and morally preferable end. As such, 
the notion of what Hitchens calls, with the apparent skepticism of a lapsed 
Marxist, "capital-H History" 66 bleeds into the realm of capital-P Progress. 

Similar to, and sometimes allied with, the notion of ideal history, but 
more open-ended, the doctrine of Progress holds that the nature of human 
civilization guarantees the incremental improvement of the conditions in 
which successive generations will live. In his book The Idea of Progress, 
J.B. Bury has argued that the doctrine of Progress has historically served as 
a secular alternative to the religious doctrine of Providence. It allowed the 
secularists of the 17 th century and beyond to retain the notion of a historical 
process guided by an external force, without committing them to the notion 
of a God who continually intervenes in that historical process. 

While the treatment of historical example in The God Delusion may, in 
other regards, seem more nuanced that that in the books of the other 
Horsemen, when he turns to what may be called the general shape of 
history, Dawkins seems prone to the most overt kind of philosophical 
mysticism. A curious blend of the doctrine of Progress and pseudo-Hegelian 
philosophy stands in support of what Dawkins calls "the moral Zeitgeist." 
My essay on morality deals with that purported phenomenon at greater 
length, but for the moment suffice it say that Dawkins invokes "the spirit of 
an age" in order to give the doctrine of Progress a suitable material on 
which to work. Morality becomes not the province of individual behavior, 
but rather of attitudes unwittingly shared by entire generations. Briefly put, 
"The point is that we have almost all moved on, and in a big way, since 
Biblical times" 67 - something "has shifted in all of us, and the shift has no 
connection with religion. If anything, it happens in spite of religion, not 

65 first published in The National Interest, Summer 1989 

66 Why Orwell Matters, 203 

67 TGD, 300 

/0 Against the Irreligious Right 

because of it." 68 More to the point, "[t]he shift is in a recognizably 
consistent direction, which most of us would judge as an improvement." 

This all seems rather vague for an author who has spoken so specifically 
in preceding chapters on subjects ranging from the anthropic principle to the 
Great Vowel Shift, and indeed Dawkins relents by writing, "It is beyond my 
amateur psychology and sociology to go any further in explaining why the 
moral Zeitgeist moves in its broadly concerted way. For my purposes it is 
enough that, as a matter of observed fact, it does move, and it is not driven 
by religion". 69 This stretches credibility, and poses a significant threat to 
any concerted effort to take Dawkins' arguments seriously. There have been, 
he will admit, temporary reversals, but these have been relatively minor. In 
the 20 th century alone, these include, presumably, the two largest 
international wars in history, several attempted genocides, the subjugation 
of two of the largest populations in the world under radically oppressive 
political regimes, the use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations, 
and so on, and so forth. "But over the longer timescale," he assures us with 
morbidly laughable confidence, "the progressive trend is unmistakable and 
it will continue." 70 

Ultimately, Dawkins' evidence for the Progressive trend comes across as 
a species of bias confirmation, achieved by selecting the evidence to match 
the desired conclusion. In the end, it seems likely to have been motivated 
less by fidelity to the facts of history than by its author's conviction that, 
"Whatever its cause, the manifest phenomenon of Zeitgeist progression is 
more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be 
good, or to decide what is good." 71 In that, it figures as an only slightly 
more obvious example of the New Atheist approach to history. The irony is 
that, in the hands of so resolute a critic of the mysticisms of others, 
Dawkins' avowal of an unquestionably progressive moral Zeitgeist itself 
constitutes a species of superstition. 

68 TGD, 304 

69 TGD, 308 

70 TGD, 307 

71 TGD, 308 

Convert Thedldgy 

Ultimate questions, "if they indeed lie beyond the province of science," 
writes Dawkins, "most certainly lie beyond the province of theologians as 
well." 1 He suggests that the questions presumably addressed by theology 
are, after all, entirely meaningless, however misleadingly correct in their 
syntax and grammar. He suspects that qualified scientists who defer to 
religion on questions science has yet to answer are "bending over 
backwards to be polite," saying, in effect, "theologians have nothing 
worthwhile to say about anything else; let's throw them a sop and let them 
worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe 
never will." The God Delusion continues in this vein for several pages, and 
Dawkins announces by way of a conclusion that he has "yet to see any good 
reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, 
etc.) is a subject at all." 

Curious, then, that Dawkins should prove to be a practitioner of theology. 
That claim will, no doubt, be taken by many as hyperbole, or a distortion of 
the language, contrived merely to shock. But I mean theology in the plainest 
sense: theos (god) + logos (word), as reasoning or discourse about gods. Let 
it not be supposed that a person need be a theist in order to practice 
theology - to do so is to confuse the narrower field of apologetic for the 
whole of theological thought - and any attempt to exempt Dawkins on 
grounds that he professes atheism will ultimately prove merely semantic. 
Theology is not a position on the question of whether or not gods exist; it is, 
rather, a methodology for making logical statements about them. True, that 
methodology can be employed for apologetic purposes, but it can also be 
used to debate the nature of the gods (as in Cicero's De natura deorum), to 
suggest a radical revision of prevailing theological notions (as in Lurianic 

1 TGD, 79-80 


48 Against the Irreligious Right 

Kaballah), or even to deny the reality of God (as Dawkins implies of 
Spinoza's formula, Deus sive natura) 2 The defining difference between 
Dawkins' theology and that of most other theologians is that Dawkins 
employs his only in order to dispense with God, but that does not disqualify 
it from the category of theology. 

A person who hopes to disprove a given mathematical proof can only do 
so by engaging in math. Likewise, it is virtually impossible to design a 
proof against the existence of gods without first defining the thing to be 
disproven. That initial circumscription is the beginning of theology. To give 
a more closely related analogy, and one perhaps more germane to Dawkins' 
own experience, Creationists who have hoped to discredit certain tenets of 
more traditional Darwinian theory have been subject to an almost 
irresistible pull towards the practice of biology, and specifically to the sort 
of functionalist evolutionary thought that Dawkins himself advocates. That 
pull practically defines the career success of an Intelligent Design advocate 
like Michael Behe, whose book Darwin s Black Box' was once the advance 
guard of the debate over Creationism. Dawkins would no doubt say that 
such advocates, however much they may aspire to scientific credibility, 
have approached the discipline in bad faith. Theologians might well make 
the same complaint with regards to Dawkins' theology. 

When we examine some of the most notable examples of the genre, what 
we find is that much of the work is done almost surreptitiously. That is, in 
part, simply a consequence of rigorous logical argument. Premises lead to 
conclusions, and the collision of those conclusions sometimes have 
unforeseen consequences. But the geometric unfolding of logical necessity 
can also be used by astute minds to settle questions that have not been 
overtly addressed. To take an example close to the heart of much that will 
follow, consider the work of Thomas Aquinas. 4 In the course of addressing 
the question of God's existence, his Summa Theologica establishes a 
number of qualities of God, such as intelligence and goodness 5 . Those 
qualities are presented as though found in the joints and mortises of the 
logical demonstration. Aquinas does not ask, "Is God intelligent? Is God 
good?" Rather, he discovers (or, at least, claims to discover) them as 
necessary corollaries of premises that are, presumably, self-evident, such as 
that infinitely recursive causation leads to logical paradox. Since I do not 
intend to make an argument concerning whether or not God exists, we can 

2 TGD, 39-40: Einstein is "a pantheist, like Spinoza," and "Pantheism is 
sexed-up atheism." More on this in the essay "A Drawing of Lines." 

3 Free Press: 1996 

4 1225-1274 

5 Part I, Question 2, Article iii. 

Covert Theology 49 

set aside the question of whether or not those premises are really given, as 
well as that of whether or not those corollaries really follow from them. The 
important point to note is the theological method, the way in which the 
nature of Aquinas' God is elaborated by a sort of lateral movement. In the 
course of addressing one question, he purports to have established the 
answers to several questions that it would have been awkward and perhaps 
question-begging to ask outright. 

I would even go so far as to suggest that establishing those qualities, 
rather than demonstrating God's existence, was the intent of the discussion, 
since the existence of God is, at any rate, doctrinal to Catholicism and 
would have been taken for granted by Aquinas' audience. Aquinas himself 
concludes that God's existence is self-evident, though we do not always 
recognize as God what is self-evident to our understanding. 6 That 
suggestion would seem to be corroborated by the form of Aquinas' 
arguments. He concludes each of the Five Ways by which he claims the 
existence of God may be proven self-evident (and, again, the emphasis is 
not on whether or not God exists but on whether or not that existence is 
self-evident) with some variation of the formula, "And this we call God." 
There is, then, no pretense of drawing an irrefutably logical conclusion that 
God exists. Rather, Aquinas demonstrates the necessity of a first mover, a 
first efficient cause, a necessary (rather than contingent) existent, an 
ontological cause, and a teleological cause, and then merely identifies all 
those things as God. Overtly, the passage may say that God's existence is 
self-evident; the implicit (and, I would argue, central) message is that God 
is non-contingent, intelligent, the fount of all being, and so on. Those are 
not inconsequential conclusions; they addressed some of the central 
disputes of the era, disputes that were, for Christians, far more troublesome 
than that of whether or not God existed. It is not often recognized how 
potentially radical that act of naming was within the context of Catholic 
tradition; the introduction of newly recovered Aristotelian philosophy into 
Catholic doctrine constituted a revolution, and the Deism of the 1 8 th century 
is not the least of the fruit it bore. Whatever apologetic end to which the 
passage may have been subsequently put, its immediate significance was 
that it settled Catholic theism on a very specific logical foundation. It is, in 
that regard, the narrow end of a pivot. 

The point is important enough to reiterate: Much of the work of theology 
takes place beneath the surface of the apparent argument. Seen in the 
context of the theological disputes of the day, it becomes clear that Aquinas 
had more than the one straightforward question of existence in mind. The 
question was less that of whether or not God exists, than that of how. Nor is 

6 Part I, Question 2, Article i. 

50 Against the Irreligious Right 

it really possible to address the question of whether or not a thing exists 
without first establishing some of the qualities that define it. Consider, for 
example, Dennett's short hand demonstration in the case of memes: "Do 
meme's exist? Yes, because words exist, and words are memes that can be 
pronounced." 7 We can, on Dennett's account, know that memes exist 
because his examples give us some indication of the nature of memes. 
Likewise, without some inkling of the characteristics that define a god, 
there is no criteria by which a god could be recognized were it to be 
discovered. It is for precisely that reason that any attempt to assess the 
existence of gods must begin with some form of theology, no matter how 

Dawkins' rejection of the field as illegitimate thus drives his theology 
underground. The most basic criticism that can be leveled against that 
theology is that it appears to have been structured with the needs of its 
refutation in mind. Much of the theology arising out of the Summa 
Theologica may be called subterranean in that the work of establishing it 
takes place beneath the surface of direct address; but when theology takes 
place beneath the guise of rejecting all theology, it can only be called 

Having embarked on the task of crafting a covert theology, it would seem 
the prudent course to limit one's application of logos to theos as much as 
possible. Dawkins seems to suppose he is doing just that when he writes, "I 
am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, 
all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they 
have been or will be invented." 8 Such ecumenicalism could only be 
achieved by either an extensive and systematic exploration of each instance 
of theism and/or supernaturalism, or striking at the universal root of what 
we mean by either. And since The God Delusion gives no indication of 
preferring the exhaustive route, it would be only reasonable to expect a 
categorical argument to sweep away all theism by a surgical explication of 
its very meaning. 

Yet the book follows a significantly different route, and the reader may be 
excused for supposing that, in doing so, it fails to make good on the earlier 
claims to do away with "anything and everything supernatural." In fact, 
Dawkins does have a "particular version of God" in mind. Our first clear 
indication of this actually comes one paragraph earlier when he writes, "I 
decry supernaturalism in all its forms, and the most effective way to 
proceed will be to concentrate on the form most likely to be familiar to my 
readers - the form that impinges most threateningly on all our societies." To 

7 BtS, 80 

8 TGD, 57 

Covert Theology 52 

make certain no one has missed the contradiction there: Dawkins is "not 
attacking any particular version of God or gods," but rather all gods, and he 
does so by concentrating on the particular version best known to his readers. 
He apparently intends the subject of his theology to serve as a synecdoche, 
where "the form most likely to be familiar to my readers" is meant to 
represent the largely category of deity in all its varieties. 

As it turns out, that means, in the first place, an appeal to the Abrahamic 
tradition. Though an indignant note rings throughout his criticism of 
"monotheistic chauvinism," 9 it rapidly grows clear that he does not intend 
to deal with polytheism any more than is required, and only, as Dawkins 
himself explains it, "to cover myself against a charge of neglect." 10 
Presumably it would not be the polytheists themselves who objected to the 
omission. Perhaps he means to justify the merely cursory treatment he gives 
by the assumption that history itself inevitably deals with polytheism. By 
way of introduction he writes, "It is not clear why the change from 
polytheism to monotheism should be assumed to be a self-evidently 
progressive improvement." 11 Apart from the question of whether or not it is 
a progressive improvement - and if Dawkins is so certain about the 
"progressive" direction of history, 12 how could it fail to be? - the implicit 
assertion is that polytheism and monotheism are distinct and successive 
stages in the universal development of religion. Dennett gestures towards a 
similar conclusion in Breaking the Spell, 13, and neither author provides any 
justification for the assumption. Nor do they consider alternative 
hypotheses, such as that the polytheism we find in some cultures might be 
the result of the cultural syncretism that occurs when independent 
monotheisms are forced to share a social space. Dawkins and Dennett 
appear to have simply and adopted wholesale from classical anthropologists 
like James Frazer and Edward Burnett Tylor the dubious theory of religion's 
progression through a fixed set of historical phases. 14 Whatever 
discrepancies arise between the theism of polytheists and that of the 
Abrahamic tradition, Dawkins can sweep them away by claiming that 
polytheism is, after all, only a phase religion passes through on its way to 
monotheism. It is not that the subject he intends to describe fails to apply to 

9 TGD, 53 

10 TGD, 56 

11 TGD, 52 

12 cf. "The Flattening of Historical Perspective" and "Landscapes and 

13 BtS, 205 

14 For some suggestion as to why, see "The Heirs of La Coterie 

52 Against the Irreligious Right 

the gods of polytheistic religions, but rather that it they have yet to fully 
mature. When they do, the applicability of his arguments will be assured. 

For the moment, suffice it to suggest that polytheism does not merely 
anticipate monotheism; that Dawkins' facile dismissal does in fact fail "to 
credit the fertile diversity of traditions and world-views that have been 
called religious"; 15 and that this does count against his aspiration to an 
ecumenical rejection of "all gods." 16 More critically, even within the 
province of monotheistic traditions, Dawkins' theology strays from "the 
form most likely to be familiar to my readers." In truth, it could not help but 
do so, since even the Abrahamic tradition, let alone monotheism in general, 
is too diverse to encapsulate in a single view. Dawkins himself is eager to 
set aside at least one version, that of the "old man in the sky with the long 
white beard," so as to dispel any accusations that he has built straw men, the 
easier to dash it, but his rejection of an admittedly "irrelevant distraction" 
ought to be no assurance that the god he ultimately deals with corresponds 
to "what the speaker really believes" - which is, Dawkins attests, "not a 
whole lot less silly." 

The actual subject of his critique he calls "the God Hypothesis." The term 
deliberately recalls a popular anecdote concerning the astronomer and 
mathematician Simon-Pierre Laplace. 17 According to the legend, Laplace 
was granted a brief audience with Napoleon, who asked why the eminent 
scientist had made no reference to God in his magnum opus, Mechanique 
Celeste. Laplace is held to have responded, "Sire, I had no need of that 
hypothesis," thus laying the foundation for the modern formulation of a 
purported God Hypothesis. Though Dawkins seems to take the report at 
face value, there does not appear to be any first hand evidence for the 
exchange, and it may well be apocryphal. The earliest source I could find 
vouching for it comes from Francois Arago, 18 and was published roughly 
three decades after Laplace's death. There may then be some injustice in 
conferring on Laplace the distinction of having inspired Dawkins' 
theological construction; I hesitate to call the God Hypothesis anything 
more incriminating than pseudo-Laplacean. 

Regardless of the authenticity of the story, it seems to be a favorite of 
New Atheists in general - Hitchens gives a lengthier version 19 - and neatly 
encapsulates one of the basic assumptions at root in Dawkins' theology. The 
God Hypothesis is, above all else, explanatory - or, perhaps more to the 

15 TGD, 57 

16 These themes will be reprised in "The Taxonomy of Religion." 

17 TGD, 68n. 

18 London: 1857 

19 GING, 66-67 

Covert Theology 53 

point, etiological. Dawkins defines it as the premise that, "there exists a 
superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and 
created the universe and everything in it, including us." 20 

Presumably this is meant to cut a wide swath, and Dawkins hints that, by 
defining his subject so, he means to sidestep the trap of dealing with "the 
particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god 
such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan." Right away the critical reader can object that 
the God Hypothesis does not accurately describe the beliefs particular to 
some of those deities. Ancient Greek cosmology, for example, depicted the 
emergence of the world in terms of a natural process, and the gods of the 
Pantheon were, themselves, creatures rather than Creators. Other theisms 
present gods who create, but not deliberately, such as the demi-urge of 
ancient gnosticism. Even the term supernatural invites scrutiny, since not all 
theistic cultures have recognized the sharp division of the natural world 
from that of the gods. Indeed, for the larger part of its history, Christianity 
saw the human world as coextensive with the divine, and nature as 
pervading the whole. 21 The modern insistence on a dichotomy between 
natural and supernatural seems to be of relatively recent provenance. 
Aquinas may have laid the foundation when he wrote that miracles were 
actions of divine agency "beyond the order commonly observed in 
nature" (praeter ordinem communiter observation in rebus), 22 but the 
worldview that linked the mundane with the divine in a single, natural order 
persisted more than 400 years after the death of Aquinas, and can be seen in 
its full flower in the works of Shakespeare and Donne. 23 During that period, 
miracles seem to have been regarded as a lacuna in the usual order of 
things, but not necessarily an indication that there was some other distinct 
and persistent order adjacent to it. The ontological territory seems to have 
been definitively redrawn only with the growth of modern science, and the 
explicit conception of a distinct supernatural order may have been devised 
specifically to demarcate the boundaries of scientific exploration. The 
supernatural, said Roger Bacon, lies beyond the methodological province of 
science, so let us turn our attention to the natural. The heavy contrast 
between the natural and the supernatural that was to form from that basis 
may indeed be an inheritance of Descartes' predilection for dualism. 

There would be no point in denying that theists do sometimes invoke 
their gods as explanations for natural or social phenomenon. Those 

20 TGD, 52 

21 cf . eg. A. O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of 
an Idea (Harvard: 1936) 

22 Summa Contra Gentiles, III 

23 E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World-Picture (Vintage: 1942) 

54 Against the Irreligious Right 

invocations range from the seemingly naive, as when we find the origin of a 
particular agricultural tool attributed to the beneficence of the god Inara in 
Sumerian myth; to a sophistication that borders on obfuscation, like that 
described by the so-called God of the Gaps. But it does not follow, post hoc 
ergo propter hoc, that the gods of religious belief were posited for the 
purpose of explaining those phenomenon, nor that they should be defined 
according to etiological function. The God Hypothesis, as presented in The 
God Delusion, asserts the logical priority of the etiological, and to the 
exclusion of facets of theism that may ultimately prove more central. 

Dawkins has long been an ardent opponent of Creationism, and 
specifically of the pseudo-scientific variety known as Intelligent Design, so 
it is perhaps no surprise that his theology bears the marks of those 
encounters. The God Delusion discusses the God of the Gaps almost 
exclusively in reference to the Creationists to whom he has long served as 
foil, but it is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that it informs his entire 
approach to the God Hypothesis. That approach is not without irony, as the 
notion of the God of the Gaps was first identified by religious figures 
arguing that there is no inherent conflict between theism and evolutionary 
theory. Dawkins traces the phrase "God of the gaps" to the theologian 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Bonhoeffer likely adapted it from a lecture by Scottish 
evangelist Henry Drummond. Both men warned against the apologetic 
strategy of locating God in the rapidly shrinking gaps in scientific 
knowledge. "If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge," 
Drummond asked, "where shall we be when those gaps are filled up?" 24 

Perhaps more to the point, there is a polemical edge in Drummond's 
assertion that, "the idea of an immanent God, which is the God of 
Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker who is 
the God of an old theology." 25 If by that older theology Drummond means 
pre-Christian religion, then we have no reason to take such a partisan 
characterization at face value. Archeologists and historians have found little 
to no evidential reason for supposing that ancient theists routinely fell back 
on their gods as an explanation for phenomenon that their technical 
sophistication was incapable of compassing. And yet Dawkins is apparently 
happy to seize on the God of the Gaps as an indication that virtually all 
theistic belief is characterized by the attempt to explain the unexplained, to 
provide a hypothesis where more practical methods have yet to provide a 
workable alternative, and that it is being driven into retreat by the advances 
of modern scientific inquiry. While some such notion appears in the work of 
all Four Horsemen, it is nowhere made more central than in the God 

24 Ascent of Man (New York: 1894), 334 

25 ibid. 

Covert Theology 55 

Hypothesis, which seems very much designed to complete the process of 
driving theism to ground. After all, if the very definition of God hinges on 
its explanatory power, then surely it can be negated by a better substantiated 


A significant feature of Dawkins' theology, then, is the implicit assertion 
that all theology impinges on the territory of science by seeking to explain 
by mere conjecture what science explores by a more salutary method. I do 
not intend to provide an exhaustive refutation of that premise, only to 
suggest that most theism is, in fact, motivated by a different set of concerns. 
To illustrate, it should be sufficient to ask whether most Christians seem 
more concerned with the cosmological question of how we can account for 
the existence of the world around us, or with the personal and social 
significance of sin and salvation. While it is true that the cosmological 
argument precedes the salvific in the Summa Theologica, can anyone 
seriously contend that Aquinas was more interested in causation than he was 
in redemption? What ultimately necessitates the existence of God for 
Christians is the question of justification; the inquiry into how the believing 
Christian may know that God exists has more to do with exploring the 
nature of the salvific God, of that God's relation to the world, than it does in 
establishing the raw fact of existence. All of which is to say that, while 
many theists will no doubt admit that they see God as "a superhuman, 
supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe 
and everything in it, including us," those terms are usually secondary to 
how an articulate believer would actually define the god of their belief. The 
God of Christianity is not primarily a supernatural First Cause, but rather 
self-sacrifice as the basis for ontological justification. The gods of other 
religions are likewise defined far less by their potential explanatory power 
than by the role they play giving significance to life. Etiology is almost 
invariably an evocation of that role rather than an end unto itself, which is 
why "moderate" religious believers can ultimately retain their religious 
commitments even as they part ways with literalism. 26 It is possible that 
decades of wrangling with Creationists have distorted Dawkins' perception 
in this regard. 

Hopefully it is now clear that the claim made at the beginning of this 
essay serves a greater purpose than that of merely courting controversy. 
Recognizing that Dawkins has embarked on his own theology allows the 
reader to see how significantly the God Hypothesis diverges from the god(s) 

26 For more on this topic cf. "The Taxonomy of Religion" 

56 Against the Irreligious Right 

believed by any particular theist. Even where the theologian may admit 
some family resemblance, the acceptance of the Hypothesis tends to form a 
facet of their theism, rather than its core. And so: if not the deities of 
polytheism, nor the icons of caricature, and possibly not the God of actual 
monotheistic believers either, what is the subject of Dawkins' inquiry? 

Dawkins defines his pseudo-Laplacean God in terms of three basic 
categories: ontology, intention and cosmology. Accordingly, the formal 
statement of the Hypothesis is easily divided into the three clauses that give 
substance to each category. Ontologically, the god described exists as "a 
superhuman, supernatural intelligence." The last term, "intelligence", also 
bears on the intentional category: God is an "intelligence who deliberately 
designs." And lastly God is defined by a role played in cosmology, as that 
which "created the universe and everything in it, including us." 

The inclusion of "supernatural" in the ontological clause proves both 
expected and curious. Expected because, as both a scientist and a partisan in 
the debate over theism, Dawkins is an inheritor of Cartesianism on both 
sides of the family. Curious because it is his premise that "God's existence 
or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in 
principle if not in practice." 27 Putting aside for the moment what it might 
mean to be "discoverable in principle" but "not in practice," there appears 
to be a serious contradiction involved here. If science is the study of nature, 
and God's existence or non-existence is a "scientific fact," then in what 
sense can that God be regarded as supernatural? It is difficult to evade the 
suspicion that Dawkins is paying lip-service to a dualism, the validity of 
which he does not, himself, intend to recognize. 

Later on, that suspicion is partly confirmed when he argues that the 
technology of a more advanced alien civilization, "would seem as 
supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to 
the twenty-first century." 28 This is not, as he supposes, equivalent to 
Clarke's Third Law - "Any sufficiently advanced technology is 
indistinguishable from magic" - and it indicates, if nothing else, that 
Dawkins does not recognize a categorical difference between the natural 
and supernatural. He emphasizes that categorical confusion when he asks of 
such aliens, "In what sense would they be superhuman but not 
supernatural?" His answer is that, "The crucial difference between gods and 
god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance." 

The rest of the passage is important to any assessment of Dawkins' 
argument, but for the moment what is important to note is his rejection of a 
distinction based on properties. The idea that only an evolutionary origin 

27 TGD, 73 

28 TGD, 98 

Covert Theology 57 

distinguishes between a god and a highly advanced and virtually 
omnipotent alien would be entirely foreign to the Abrahamic tradition 
Dawkins presumes to address. To those religious believers who affirm the 
natural/supernatural dichotomy, the supernatural category denotes an 
ontological difference - that is, a fundamental difference in what it means to 
exist. Consider, for example, the ontological difference critical to the 
Cosmological Argument. To avoid logical paradox, the Argument posits the 
existence of a First Cause that is not, itself, the effect of another cause. It 
would be difficult to overstate how fundamentally different the fact of its 
necessity would make such a First Cause from every other existing thing. 
When theologians suggest that it is misleading to talk of the supernatural as 
existing in the same way that we speak of the empirical world as existing, 
they usually have in mind such critical ontological differences. 

Dawkins apparently does not. The relative weakness of his conception of 
the category of the supernatural shows not only in his discussion of the 
"difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials," but also in his 
facile dismissal of the Cosmological Argument. He is correct in noting that 
the first three arguments "rely upon the idea of a regress," but not that they 
"invoke God to terminate it." Rather, they point to the logical necessity of 
some terminal point, and assign to that terminal point the name of God. "As 
ever, the theist's answer is deeply unsatisfying," Dawkins writes, "because 
it leaves the existence of God unexplained." 29 But as with any other 
terminal point that might be posited to take God's place, explicability would 
disqualify a suggested First Cause, since it would indicate contingency. Any 
First Cause that could be explained as the effect of some prior cause would, 
by definition, cease to be a first cause. Whatever his faults may have been, 
Aquinas was no slouch when it came to logical argument. He does not 
invoke God to halt the regress; rather, he argues that a terminal point is 
logically necessary, and proclaims that terminal point, whatever it is, God. 
That is how Aquinas claims to know that there is, in fact, a subject matter to 
his theology, and Dawkins merely follows the common misconception of 
Aquinas' "Five Ways" when he argues that, "They make the entirely 
unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress." 30 Once 
the reader of Summa Theologica consents to call the hypothetical terminal 
point by the name God, it no longer makes sense to ask the question, "What 
created God?" 

Borrowing Dennett's terminology to distinguish between explanatory 
"cranes" and "skyhooks," Dawkins argues that, "Skyhooks - including all 
gods - are magic spells. They do no bona fide explanatory work and 

29 TGD, 171 

30 TGD, 101 

58 Against the Irreligious Right 

demand more explanation than they provide. Cranes are explanatory devices 
that actually do explain." 31 Apart from the fact that a criticism of this sort 
depends on the premise that God was posited first and foremost as an 
explanatory tool (a premise that Dawkins brokers in anecdotally rather than 
evidentially) it ignores that any real solution to the problem of causal 
redress will necessarily be a skyhook explanation. Cranes, in Dennett's 
jargon, are explanations that build on underlying foundations, but any 
purported terminator to the regress of causation would fail to qualify as a 
First Cause. Perhaps it would be, as Dawkins suggests, "more parsimonious 
to conjure up, say, a 'big bang singularity', or some other physical concept 
as yet unknown," 32 but if that conjuration cannot persuasively claim to have 
no antecedents then it will be open to the same question of origins. And if it 
is taken to be a necessary First Cause then it will also be, according to 
Aquinas' formula, worthy of the name God. "Some regresses do reach a 
natural terminator," Dawkins writes, but regardless of its truth the assertion 
carries no teeth as a rebuttal to Aquinas. True, it may be "by no means clear 
that God provides a natural terminator to the regresses of Aquinas," but 
much depends on what is meant by "natural." If the God of the First Cause 
argument does warrant the label supernatural, it can only be because it 
differs ontologically from the empirical world by virtue of its necessity. But 
in that case, any solution to the problem of infinite causal regress will 
necessarily qualify as supernatural, since it cannot be said to actually 
terminate the regress unless it is ontologically different in precisely the 
same way. Thus the question of provenance - which is, for Dawkins, central 
- becomes absurd. What Dawkins does not seem to recognize is that any 
answer to the problem of infinite causal redress must be immune to the 
question of provenance. No proposed solution of which that question could 
be reasonably asked and answered would qualify as an actual solution to the 
problem of regress. 

It is a bit of a mystery why Dawkins would include the supernatural 
clause at all if he does not intend to treat it as qualitatively different from 
the natural. As we shall see, despite having defined the subject of the God 
Hypothesis as supernatural, Dawkins consistently treats the pseudo- 
Laplacean God as though it were a natural object. The careful reader must 
thus decide whether Dawkins has failed to make it clear precisely how far 
his use of the term supernatural departs from the usual sense in which it is 
understood, or has simply failed to consistently address one of the terms of 
his own definition. The anomaly is made all the more apparent by the terms 
in which Dawkins frames the God Hypothesis. Against the particular 

31 TGD, 99 

32 TGD, 101-102 

Covert Theology 59 

qualities brought to the table by theists of various religious stripes, he 
intends to "define the God Hypothesis more defensibly." 33 That may sound 
charitable, but he is doing no one any favors. If nothing else, Dawkins' 
claim to have demonstrated its falsity in the span of a few dozen pages 
renders that pretense hollow. 

Rather, "defensibly" may be intended to recall a Popperian philosophy of 
science, as Hitchens does more explicitly when he writes, "I was educated 
by Sir Karl Popper to believe that a theory that is unfalsifiable is to that 
extent a weak one." 34 To give a much truncated synopsis, Popper's book 
Objective Knowledge 35 presented the argument that the methodology of 
science makes objective knowledge possible not by producing provably true 
hypotheses, but by eliminating demonstrably false ones. As such, to qualify 
as scientific a hypothesis must be, above all, falsifiable. In the context of 
Dawkins' charitable redefinition of God, "defensible" may be little more 
than a euphemism for falsifiable; and, indeed, his demonstration of the 
falsity of that hypothesis depends in no small part on his having provided a 
falsifiable hypothesis. Presumably, a more traditional understanding of 
supernatural would be both more literally defensible as well as less 
falsifiable, much to the ire of Dennett who regards such distinctions as an 
evasion of doubtful sincerity. 

In light of the foregoing, Dawkins' affinity for the Laplace anecdote 
begins to take on a different cast. The implicit insistence that God is, above 
all else, a hypothesis suggests that something like Popper's criteria ought to 
apply. This allows Dawkins to judge the God Hypothesis as he would any 
other scientific hypothesis. Unsurprisingly, the judgment is wholly negative. 


Objections to the ontological aspects of the Hypothesis bear significantly on 
the intentional clause that God is an "intelligence who deliberately designs." 
Those are the terms most operative in the book's proposed "alternative 
view" that "any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design 
anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended 
process of gradual evolution." 3,6 The argument here is inductive: the only 
examples of intelligence that humans observe in nature are the result of an 
evolutionary process, and therefore so must be any other form of creative 

33 TGD, 52 

34 GING, 81 

35 (Oxford: 1972) 

36 TGD, 52 

60 Against the Irreligious Right 

intelligence we might posit. Immediately, problems result from Dawkins' 
failure to take seriously the inclusion of the term "supernatural" in his 
definition, since the introduction of an entity that is ontologically different 
draws into question the inductive premise. Even allowing for the inductive 
conclusion - and philosopher David Hume famously drew into question the 
logical justification for inductive reasoning - there is no a priori reason to 
assume that a conclusion drawn inductively from a contingent existent 
would apply in the case of a necessary existent. 

Once the possibility is admitted, that contingent phenomena and 
necessary phenomenon differ so substantially that any proposed equivalence 
between them is questionable at best, it should become clear that more than 
induction is needed to establish the central premise of Dawkins' alternative 
view. Taken to a logical extreme like Universal Darwinism, the premise that 
intelligence indicates a prior evolutionary premise could be applied to any 
trait attributed to a First Cause. Dawkins may as well say, "any causal agent, 
of sufficient substance to cause anything, comes into existence only as the 
end product of an extended process of gradual evolution." The only 
objection is that, to do so is to deny the not only the conclusion, but also the 
premises of the Cosmological Argument. Dawkins passes up the 
opportunity to do so explicitly. He even seems to affirm them when he 
recounts the arguments made by his "theologian friends" (who must be 
friendly indeed to overlook his opinion of the field to which they have 
dedicated their professional lives): "There must have been a first cause of 
everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it 
must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an 
appropriate name." 37 

As it happens, Catholic theology does hold that God is simple, so the only 
remaining point of contention is Dawkins' assertion that, "Entities that are 
complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process" 38 
- or more to the point, the implicit premise that only a complex entity can 
be intelligent. It is at least moderately clear why we should expect as much 
in the case of a contingent entity, but less so when it comes to entities 
belonging to some other ontological category. The dispute is complicated 
even more by an inquiry to what exactly theologians mean when they say 
that God is intelligent. Dawkins' caricatures of Thomistic theology conflate 
Aquinas' Fifth Way with the Divine Clockmaker of William Paley, who may 
be taken as emblematic of the sort of apologetic eschewed by Drummond 
and Bonhoeffer. Despite Dawkins' insistence that the Teleological Argument 

37 TGD, 184 

38 TGD, 98 

Covert Theology 6l 

claims to prove that "there must have been a designer," 39 it is more 
consonant with what Aquinas actually wrote to interpret the Argument as an 
explication of what it means to call God intelligent. Paley's argument was 
that the discovery of any complex and apparently designed object in nature 
requires us to suppose that there must have been a designer, as we would 
were we to stumble upon a timepiece in the desert. By contrast, Aquinas 
talks of design not in order to substantiate the appearances of complexity, 
but rather to account for all action. He would have, no doubt, counted 
Newton's Laws of Motion as an example of God's intelligence. Aquinas' 
point (of which Paley's Divine Clockmaker is a diminution, just as the 
irreducible complexity of ID. proponents is a diminution of Paley) is that 
the consistency of phenomenon in the natural world proves intelligible 
because it is caused by God. The intelligence of God, then, consists in the 
intelligible order of the universe. The principle admits of an almost 
pantheistic reading; since human intelligence is incapable of apprehending 
the essence of God apart from what is evident in Creation, we have no 
grounds for imagining God's intelligence apart from its expression in 
nature. Dawkins is barred from interpreting it that way by his own exclusion 
of pantheism from consideration. 

It may seem that, by talking of God's intelligence in those terms, 
theologians of the Thomistic bent are capitalizing on a special sense of the 
term in order to make an argument for intelligence that would be 
unwarranted if they were to insist on the plain meaning of the word. That 
appearance of jargon is mostly an illusion of historical change. The sense in 
which Dawkins talks of intelligence as a properly of the God Hypothesis is 
the result of centuries of semantic shift. That shift may be explained in part 
by the pressures put on the subject of intelligence by the development of 
nearly a millennium of study on human consciousness. In order to 
understand intelligence as a phenomenon in contingent beings, philosophy 
and science has had to constrain its meaning in ways that have gradually 
overtaken the public perception of what it mean to be intelligent. 
Intelligence had a broader sense when Aquinas wrote the Summa 40 The 
quantitative sense most apparent in modern discussion of intelligence would 
have been largely foreign to his contemporaries, who regarded it as a 
faculty more akin to what we mean when we talk of apprehending or 

39 103 

40 Cf. eg. C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image. Lewis is perhaps best known as 
an apologist for Protestant Christianity. He was also (and perhaps foremost) 
a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature and society, and it was in 
that capacity that he wrote The Discarded Image. His apologetic, though 
perennially popular, is idiosyncratic and, as Lewis himself admitted, amateur. 

62 Against the Irreligious Right 

recognizing a thing, and it would not have been wholly incomprehensible to 
talk of the universe as intelligent in the same way that Dawkins talks of it as 
anthropic. That is to say, any universe that made teleology possible would 
be an intelligent universe, and the cause on which that universe was 
ultimately contingent would have to be, in some way, responsible for that 

Seemingly oblivious to the complications of debating a theologian across 
a span of eight centuries, Dawkins holds his ground. "The first cause that 
we seek," he argues, "must have been the simple basis for a self- 
bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its 
present complex existence." 41 It would be interesting to know how Dawkins 
envisions the difference between a skyhook and a "self-bootstrapping 
crane." They sound suspiciously synonymous, as though Dawkins could not 
bring himself to admit that accepting the logical necessity of a first cause 
also commits him to at least one skyhook. His entire objection to Thomistic 
theology threatens to pull apart under the stress of his unwillingness to 
follow the first cause argument to its logical conclusion. 


In the interest of following his argument through to the end, it may worth 
temporarily overlooking the defects inherent in the first two clauses of his 
theology. The systematic argument he makes against theism (and, in its 
capacity as "the factual premise of religion", one of three arguments against 
religion in toto) is made possible by the addition of the third clause, that 
God "created the universe and everything in it, including us." 

Dawkins himself calls his argument "the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit." 
His preference for that name is largely anecdotal; a more descriptive name 
would be the Probabilistic Argument Against the God Hypothesis, and as 
such, this is the last mention Fred Hoyle's accidental 747 will receive here. 
For Dawkins it is "the central argument of my book," and he summarizes it 
with six numbered points: 

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the 
centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable 
appearance of design in the universe arises. 

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to 
actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artifact such as a 

41 TGD, 185 

Covert Theology 63 

watch, the designer really "was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to 
apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person. 

3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis 
immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. 
The whole problem started out with "was the problem of explaining 
statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate 
something even more improbable. We need a 'crane,' not a 'skyhook,' 
for only a crane can do the business of "working up gradually and 
plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity. 

4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is 
Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors 
have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical 
improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, 
gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that 
the illusion of design in living creatures is just that — an illusion. 

5. We don't yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of 
multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same 
explanatory "work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of 
explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version 
of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the 
anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our 
limited human intuition is comfortable with. 

6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, 
something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the 
absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the 
relatively "weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the 
anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating 
skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer. 42 

The greater part of the first three points, it is worth noting, are not so 
much an argument as they are an attempt to contextualize the problem. 
Objections to many of the points made therein have occupied the greater 
part of this essay to this point, but by way of recapitulation we may say that 
it is by no means clear that the problem of "how to explain the complex, 
improbable appearance of design" informed the early development of 
theism, nor that it should be central to an assessment of the grounds for 
theism; that the sense in which Dawkins here employs the term design 

42 TGD, 188-189 

64 Against the Irreligious Right 

reflects a later diminution of the sense it originally held for theologians; 
that, whatever its status for Paley, "the larger problem of who designed the 
designer" is actually precluded by the traditional Aristotelian and Thomistic 
versions of the Cosmological Argument; and that, despite his insistence to 
the contrary, Dawkins himself cannot logically evade the need for a 
skyhook rather than a crane. To those concerns we may add that it is unclear 
why we should suppose it natural to interpret deliberate design in the 
regularity of the world, 43 and that "the problem of explaining statistical 
improbability," which is wholly alien to earlier theology, is brokered in by 
Dawkins by way of Paley and Hoyle, and implies a consonance between 
those theologians and their predecessors that simply does not exist. 

It is with the fourth point that the Probabilistic Argument begins to take 
shape. "Natural selection is the champion crane of all time," he tells us, 
putting himself squarely on the team preordained to win; 44 "nobody has 
ever thought of a better one." 45 Not only does it explain "the whole of life; 
it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how 
organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any 
deliberate guidance." 46 Such explanations are possible because "natural 
selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of 
improbability into small pieces." 47 If we assume that the "illusion of design 
in living creatures" was a motive force in the religious elaboration of 
theism, then we may well interpret the solution of that problem by The 
Origin of Species an instance of the displacement of religion by science. 

Dawkins' fifth summary point calls for a physical equivalent of 
Darwinian explanation. Some physicists, a certain "mischievous biologist" 
tells us, "are in need of Darwinian consciousness-raising." 48 Actually, what 
Dawkins seems to have in mind is not so much an equivalent as it is the 
direct importation of the principle of natural selection into the field of 
physics - if not a Universal Darwinism in the expansive sense suggested by 
Dennett, then Cosmological Darwinism at the very least. To that end, 
Dawkins champions the suggestion of astrophysicist Martin Rees, that our 
universe could actually be part of a cluster of universes that adhere to 
varying combinations of by-laws. He then lights on "a tantalizingly 
Darwinian variant on the multiverse theory" propounded by theoretical 
physicist Lee Smolin, which holds that "daughter universes are born of 

43 For the theme of "natural" assumptions cf. "The Taxonomy of Religion" 

44 TGD, 99 

45 TGD, 185 

46 TGD, 141 

47 TGD, 147 

48 TGD, 175 

Covert Theology 65 

parent universes," and that "the fundamental constants of a daughter 
universe are slightly 'mutated' versions of the constants of its parent." 49 
Acceptance of that theory allows Dawkins to broker heredity into 
cosmology, and with it, full-fledged natural selection. The apparent 
improbability that a universe with the proper fundamental constants to 
allow for the eventual appearance of intelligent life can thus be broken 
down, since only the "universes that have what it takes to 'survive' and 
'reproduce' come to predominate in the multiverse." Any readers who 
happen to be skeptical of Smolin's Darwinian variant simply "have not had 
their consciousness raised by natural selection." 

And if all else fails, there remains the sixth point, that physics may yet 
produce a stronger crane by which to explain the improbability of our 
universe, and even if it does not, a weak crane like the multiverse theory is 
still a better explanation than the God Hypothesis. By way of those six 
points, Dawkins arrives at his grand conclusion, that "the factual premise of 
religion - the God Hypothesis - is untenable. God almost certainly does not 
exist." 50 

The sixth point seems the weakest. The argument from "hope of a better 
crane" may be convincing to someone who has had their consciousness 
raised, but it does nothing to achieve the sort of comparison the rest of the 
argument is staked upon. Perhaps more to the point, in what sense is a 
"relatively weak crane" weak? If "weak" indicates that we are unable to 
substantiate some of the premises on which a crane is purportedly built, 
then in what sense is it a crane rather than a skyhook? And how would such 
a crane be self-evidently better than the "hypothesis of an intelligent 

In light of questions of that sort, it should be at least conceivable that 
Dawkins' reliance on so-called "consciousness raisers" is more a liability 
than an argument. To some degree it seems intended to function as a 
substitute for more compelling logic. If a physicist is not convinced by the 
Smolin's Darwinian explication of the multiverse theory on its own merits, 
why should they want to be convinced by having their consciousness raised 
beforehand? We might ask how, in terms of its power to persuade, having 
one's consciousness raised differs from indoctrination, or having one's brain 
washed. The phrase is not all that far removed from the terminology used by 
ideologies Dawkins presumably would not condone, like Maoism or gnostic 
Christianity, so why should he regard it as an unqualified good when it 
pertains to "the power of natural selection?" Presumably he would answer 
that natural selection is true and those other ideologies are not, although it 

49 TGD, 174-175 

50 TGD, 189 

66 Against the Irreligious Right 

would beg the question to hang the argument on a hook like that. "It was the 
feminists," he writes, "who raised my consciousness of the power of 
consciousness-raising," 51 though presumably not those standing "in the 
ditzily unreal intersection of theology and feminism." 52 His own skepticism 
with regard to that intersection ought to have cued Dawkins to the dangers 
of consciousness raising. 

Even supposing the validity of evolutionary theory in the biological 
context, there remain grounds for supposing that having one's 
consciousness raised by it might lead one astray. Analogies can be seductive 
far beyond their value as an index to relationships of meaning. It is entirely 
possible that a recognition of the immense biological explanatory power of 
evolutionary theory could lead one to hear echoes of it where there are 
none. For Dawkins and Smolin, the multiverse theory is provocative 
precisely because it permits an analogy between the evolution of biological 
forms and that of cosmological forms. Supposing that there is a multiverse, 
and that universes within it give birth to new universes with closely 
inherited physical laws, allows Dawkins to project evolution onto the stars, 
but the theory is vastly speculative. Just as a student of astrology may, 
through their own form of consciousness raising, come to see the workings 
of astral influence in the stock market, it should be recognized that every 
juncture at which Dawkins invokes consciousness raising in the place of a 
more logically compelling argument is the surrender of inquiry to the appeal 
of analogy. That Dawkins apparently has not girded himself against such 
hazards is curious since they are of exactly the sort a believer in memes 
might identify as opportunities for false ideas to proliferate at the expense 
of their human hosts. 

To bolster the multiverse theory, Dawkins brokers in the Strong Anthropic 
Principle (SAP), or rather a version of it. Significantly, he writes in a 
footnote that Leonard Susskind, who himself advocates the application of 
the anthropic principle to the idea of a "megaverse", also "says the idea is 
hated by most physicists. I can't understand why. I think it's beautiful - 
perhaps because my consciousness has been raised by Darwin." 53 Notably, 
Smolin ranks among those with little love for the anthropic principle, if the 
acrimonious debate that passed between he and Susskind in 2004 is any 
indication. The debate began with Smolin's claim that "the Anthropic 

51 TGD, 140 

52 TGD, 57 

53 TGD, 173 

Covert Theology 67 

Principle (AP) cannot yield any falsifiable predictions, and therefore cannot 
be a part of science." 54 It ended in stalemate. 

The anthropic principle itself was introduced in a 1973 paper by 
Australian theoretical physicist Brandon Carter, 55 and has since been subject 
to a number of reinterpretations of varying demonstrability. They vary so 
much, in fact, that even "religious apologists love the anthropic principle," 
as Dawkins admits. "For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think 
it supports their case." 56 The version Dawkins employs in the Probabilistic 
Argument was formulated by John Barrow and Frank Tipler in their book 
The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, 51 and differs in significant regards 
from Carter's original. 

The distinction between "weak" and "strong" versions of the principle 
was drawn by Carter himself. The weak version is actually the better 
grounded, as Carter himself asserts. "It remains true however," he writes, 
"that whereas a prediction based only on the weak anthropic principle [...] 
can amount to a complete physical explanation, on the other hand even an 
entirely rigorous prediction based on the strong anthropic principle will not 
be completely satisfying from a physicist's point of view since the 
possibility will remain of finding a deeper underlying theory explaining the 
relationships that have been predicted." 58 That accounts for the wariness 
noted by Susskind. To understand why, it is important to note the difference 
between the strong and weak versions. 

The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), on which the Strong is based, 
"consists basically of a reaction against the exaggerated subservience to the 
'Copernican principle,'" 59 which is Carter's shorthand for the role the 
heliocentric model played in unseating humanity's perception that it sat at 
the center of the universe. More to the point, the Copernican revolution is 
said to have shaken Europe's confidence in the conceit that the universe was 
somehow arranged for humanity's benefit. Historians have questioned the 
supposition that pre-Copernican Europeans regarded geocentrism as proof 
of the cosmological importance of humanity - it seems to have been more 
traditional to regard the sub-lunary realm as a cosmological backwater 60 - 

54 "Scientific alternatives to the anthropic principle," published in Universe or 
Multiverse, Cam bridge :2007 

55 "Large number coincidences and the anthropic principle in cosmology." 

56 TGD, 164 

57 Oxford: 1988 

58 Carter, 295 

59 ibid. 291 

60 Cf. eg. C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image 

68 Against the Irreligious Right 

but the significance for Carter is merely that deference to the Copernican 
principle sometimes leads scientists to behave as though the fact of our 
existence has no significance at all as a scientific observation. At the most 
basic level, the WAP allows us to assert that, if we know nothing else about 
the universe, we know at least that it is the sort of universe that allows for 
intelligence observers of a certain kind - that is: humanity. In certain 
circumstances, recognizing that our universe is anthropic makes it 
reasonable to predict observations about the universe that might not have 
been made had we remained slavishly bound to the Copernican principle. 
Carter uses it to demonstrate how certain "large number coincidences" that 
physicists have observed in the universe might have been predicted by 
simply recognizing that they would be necessary in an anthropic universe. 
The mathematics of that demonstration are beyond the scope of this essay, 
but to illustrate the use of the WAP it should be sufficient to say that any 
time a scientist is given the choice between two potential values in an 
unknown variable, one that suggests a universe that could support humans 
and one that could not, it would be reasonable to choose the former, even if 
there is, as yet, no other hard evidence to support it. 

The strong version that Dawkins employs functions by asserting a higher 
degree of warrantability. As Carter puts it, "we must be prepared to take 
account of the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged 
to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers." Claims 
made on the basis of that sort of necessity can be said to overreach Popper's 
principle of objectivity, since claims made on the basis of the strong version 
prove less falsifiable than those made with the weak. In that regard, the 
SAP is strong not because the argument it makes is better grounded or more 
logically compelling, but because it relies on the force of assertion rather 
than that of experimentation. Perhaps counterintuitively, the WAP is more 
literally defensible. Once we recognize that "the Universe (and hence the 
fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the 
creation of observers within it at some stage," 61 it becomes possible, though 
by no means logically compelling, "to promote a prediction based on the 
strong anthropic principle to the status of an explanation by thinking in 
terms of a 'world ensemble.'" That "world ensemble" is very roughly 
analogous to Smolin's multiverse or Susskind's megaverse, but Carter calls 
such a maneuver merely "philosophically possible," and then only "as a last 
resort, when no stronger physical argument is available." 62 Carter seems to 
suggest it mostly as a hypothetical model for contrasting conceivable 
worlds, primarily those with constants that would not permit intelligent 

61 ibid. 294-295 

62 ibid. 295-296 

Covert Theology 69 

observers, with the anthropic universe we actually observe. That in itself is 
not sufficient grounds for assuming the actual existence of additional 
universes, but Dawkins seems to invoke it for almost exactly that purpose. 

Here he seems to have made the same genre mistake as he earlier made 
with respect to Aquinas' Five Ways. He treats both as a species of 
ontological demonstration. In fact, both simply assume the very things they 
seem to establish. Therein, curiously, lies the strength of each. What they 
provide on the basis of those assumptions can be called the structure of a 
point of view. In the case of the cosmological argument, it is a point of view 
that represents the world of phenomenon as a series of effects that can be 
logically traced back to an initial cause. The power of that point of view is 
that, once the theist recognizes that initial cause as God, it provides a 
framework for understanding the natural order in terms of Providence. It 
provides, in other words, a rationale for the use (by Aristotelians, then 
Catholics, and later, Deists) of natural philosophy as a tool for 
understanding the nature of God. Dawkins complains that there is no 
methodology to theology, but the cosmological argument provides the basis 
for one. It is, in that sense, practically meta-theological. 

The anthropic principle likewise asserts a formal relationship with an 
assumed cause in order to structure a pragmatic point of view. Substitute 
"human observers" for "the world," and "anthropic universe" for "first 
cause" - the formula works much the same. The result is a point of view 
that, in contrast to the Copernican principle, allows the scientist to infer 
from the second term the practical details of the first. Just as the 
cosmological argument provides a structure for discerning the nature of God 
by identifying God with the chain of causal events observed in the world of 
phenomenon, the anthropic principle discerns the nature of the universe by 
seeing in it the conditions for our existence as observers. In either case, the 
point is to build a case for deriving the nature of a remote, unknown cause 
by assuming its relationship to the immediately present. 

As Carter recognized in the case of the anthropic principle, neither 
structure is convincing to the person who does not grant the thing assumed 
in each. Dawkins may have incorporated the SAP into the Probabilistic 
Argument on the strength of Carter's speculation that its use might oblige 
the granter to accept the conclusions it makes possible, whether or not they 
were palatable, but something like Carter's world ensemble are assumed in 
the SAP, not logically compelled by it. 

But even granting the sort of cosmological evolution Dawkins assumes 
alongside Smolin, there is little reason to suppose that Dawkins has 
answered the same question as the addressed by traditional theology. Here it 
becomes necessary to recognize the distinction between taxonomic and 
ontological explanations: that is, between an explanation for the form a 

yo Against the Irreligious Right 

thing takes, versus the explanation for the existence of the thing. In biology, 
evolution explains the forms taken by life, but in order to explain the 
existence of life biologists resort to another theory, abiogenesis. Without 
abiogenesis, there would be no biological process of evolution, because 
there would be no living material on which natural selection could act. 
Likewise, Dawkins' Probabilistic Argument brokers in cosmological 
evolution to explain how an anthropic universe could arise in a scheme in 
which universes already exist, but that does nothing to explain the prior 
existence of the material on which that process acts. 

The cosmological argument begins by seeking out the terminal point of 
contingent causation. Whatever that terminal point may be, Aquinas 
consents to call it God. As such, the being that Aquinas recognizes as God 
exists necessarily, whatever we choose to call it, precisely insofar as the 
reader is willing to accept the premise that it is necessary to assume a first 
cause in order to avoid paradox. As noted above, so long as the terms of the 
first cause argument are accepted, it no longer makes any sense to ask how 
the entity Aquinas calls God came into existence: it exists necessarily, and 
that is precisely how it explains the existence of all of the contingent entities 
of which it is the cause. Because the cosmological argument functions by 
giving the name God to whatever first cause we may find, Aquinas' 
argument is applicable even if when Dennett suggests that we might just as 
easily assume that the universe itself exists necessarily. The result would 
merely be the sort of pantheism or pan-en-theism suggested by Spinoza. 
Logically, in fact, there seems to be no way around assuming at least one 
necessary cause: that is, at least one cause that exists, but not as the effect of 
anything else. Even supposing that time is cyclical and all the myriad 
phenomenon we observe are ultimately contingent on their own prior 
existence, we would have to suppose that the cycle itself is ontologically 

So while Dawkins' suggestion that our universe evolved in the context of 
a multiverse provides a plausible explanation for how an anthropic universe 
could arise from an a priori background of non-anthropic alternatives, in 
doing so it only pushes the ontological question further back. We might as 
easily ask whether the multiverse that gave birth to our universe was, itself, 
the product of a prior evolutionary process. Ultimately, the advocate for 
cosmological evolution will be forced back on exactly the same sort of first 
cause assumption that informs the cosmological argument, if they are not to 
resign themselves to the notion that "it's turtles all the way down," as 
Stephen Hawkins' anecdote goes. 63 A dyed-in-the-wool Aristotelian, 
Thomist or Deist could simply match the multiverse advocate step for step 

63 A Brief History of Time, Bantam : 1 988 

Covert Theology 72 

and say, Good then, that is God. If they are serious in calling the first cause, 
whatever it is, God, then there is no way to gainsay that, except by insisting, 
as Dawkins does, on anchoring it to a "more defensible" definition. But, as 
noted earlier, the God Hypothesis is the product of Dawkins' own 
theological efforts, and does not necessarily correspond to the theology of 
actual theists. By contrast, a multiverse, merely by name, implies certain 
features that might bar it from corresponding to that initial cause: i.e. as a 
collection of universes, it must be, if nothing else, complex. We may ask (as 
the skeptic reasonably asks of Paley's divine clockmaker, but not of 
Aquinas' first cause), yes, but how did the multiverse get there? And if the 
answer proves to be that, after all, there must be some initial, necessary 
cause, then perhaps it is the multiverse that should be put to Occam's test. 
At any rate, we have no grounds for supposing that it is, as Dawkins claims, 
more probable than God, since something like Aquinas' God may still be 
necessary to account for its existence. 


If, to now, this essay has dwelled at length on the argument Dawkins 
presents, to the exclusion of the other Horsemen, the reason is that 
Dawkins' theology aims higher than that of his compatriots. Where the 
marks of theological contemplation surface in the books of Dennett, Harris 
and Hitchens, they tend to be brief and unconnected. It may not be 
unreasonable to suppose that more lies behind, indicating theologies that 
are, if anything, more covert than the one Dawkins covers with little more 
than a blanket denial that theologians say anything at all. 

For example, in Breaking the Spell, Dennett "tentatively" defines 
religions as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a 
supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.'" 64 It might be 
expected, then, that he would at some point inquire into what those 
supernatural agents are believed to be. But unlike Dawkins, Dennett does 
little to address the theists' rational grounds for their belief, and so has little 
cause to wrangle with them over which conception of god is most 
"defensible." The reasoning presented for that position is, that an observer 
cannot reliably distinguish between what is presumably believed by a 
religious adherent, and what is merely professed. On that basis, Dennett 
claims to be persuaded that "Hume's project of natural religion (evaluating 
arguments for and against the existence of God) is largely wasted effort," 65 

64 BtS, 9 

65 BtS, 234 

72 Against the Irreligious Right 

but by the same logic it proves likewise impossible to say for certain that 
Dennett believes that rather than merely professes it. 

"The logical arguments" presented by religion, he writes, "are regarded 
by many thinkers, including many philosophers who have looked at them 
carefully for years, to be intellectual conjuring tricks or puzzles rather than 
serious scientific proposals," and illustrates that claim with a caricature of 
Anselm's Ontological Argument 66 (which, similar to the Cosmological 
Argument, only demonstrates the existence of something, "than which 
nothing greater can be conceived," and understands that thing as God). 67 
From there he moves in quick order through the Cosmological Argument 
and the Argument from Design. But the examination never seems more than 
perfunctory, as though Dennett also felt the need to cover himself against a 
charge of neglect. Rather, Dennett's grand strategy is to build a case for a 
process whereby such beliefs form with little or no reference to the agency 
of the believer. Another essay, "The Diagnostics of Belief," will examine 
that theme in more detail; here the point is only that it allows Dennett to 
largely avoid grappling with theology by making the case that, after all, the 
believer should feel no vested interest in their beliefs. 

What does stand out in Dennett's inquiry, though, is the insistence that the 
role of those supernatural agents must be active. If what theists "call God is 
really not an agent in their eyes," he declares, "a being that can answer 
prayers, approve and disapprove, receive sacrifices, and mete out 
punishment or forgiveness, then although they may call this Being God, and 
stand in awe of it (not Him), their creed, whatever it is, is not really a 
religion according to my definition." 68 Those, it might be noticed, are all 
interpersonal interactions with individuals, and Dennett does not include in 
his list acts like Creation, which would certainly qualify the Creator as an 
agent. Omissions of that sort presumably would excuse the Deists on 
grounds that the God of their creed is presently too inactive to qualify as the 
subject of religious belief. What they have "is, perhaps, a wonderful (or 
terrible) surrogate for religion, or a former religion, an offspring of a 
genuine religion that bears many family resemblances to religion, but it is 
another species altogether." The biological analogy is, as I have shown 
elsewhere, 69 close to the heart of Dennett's argument. The immediate point, 
though, is that theology only properly addresses the gods of religion, which 
is to say the interactive gods of interpersonal relations; anything else is, for 
Dennett, merely "symbolic," which he seems to regard as the tacit 

66 BtS, 243 

67 Proslogion, Chapters II & III 
68 efS, 10 

69 Cf. "The Taxonomy of Religion" 

Covert Theology 73 

disavowal that gods are, after all, anything at all. "The core phenomenon of 
religion," he proposes, "invokes gods who are effective agents in real time, 
and who play a central role in the way the participants think about what 
they ought to do." 70 If the point is not yet sufficiently clear, he clarifies, "If 
what you hold sacred is not any kind of Person you could pray to, to 
consider to be an appropriate recipient of gratitude (or anger, when a loved 
one is senselessly killed), you're an atheist in my book." 71 

In The End of Faith, by contrast, we see theology elevated to an act of 
extremism. Harris asserts that "the very ideal of religious tolerance - born 
of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he 
wants about God - is one of the principle forces driving us toward the 
abyss." 72 Does that mean that human beings should not be allowed to 
believe whatever they want about God? That would seem to be taking the 
polemical atheist's position to an extreme, however logical. At the very 
least, he seems to mean something more than that there should be no variety 
to theological belief. 

Yet, like the other Horsemen, Harris is at least overtly critical of the 
theological enterprise. "If religion addresses a genuine sphere of 
understanding and human necessity," he writes, "then it should be 
susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather 
than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields, would have to be a matter 
of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine." 73 A strange 
tension stands between the idea that tolerance of the differences that pass 
between different theisms is so potent that it is "driving us toward the 
abyss," and that, at the same time, there is no progress in religion. Is it not a 
contradiction to suppose that religious belief is entirely static, but that it has 
nevertheless giving rise to a dangerous variety? Perhaps he means that 
theological knowledge, to the extent that it is knowledge, ought to be 
steadily converging. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the 
branching of theological systems could be a form of progress. 74 

That frustrating ambiguity remains nearly constant throughout Harris' 
critique of theism. He often finds it blameworthy for aspects that, not a 
dozen pages further on, it is held not to have. Perhaps the only thing 
consistent in such dueling criticisms is the suggestion that theism should be 
antiquated. The criticism of "religious moderation" is an continual theme 

70 BtS, 11-12 

71 BtS, 245; more on that in "A Drawing of Lines" 

72 TEoF, 15 

73 TEoF, 22 

74 Cf. "The Heirs of La Coterie Holbachique" for the New Atheist conception 
of Progress. 

J4 Against the Irreligious Right 

throughout both The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. In the 
latter, Harris argues that liberal and moderate theists "don't know what it is 
like to really believe in God." 75 They "refuse to draw any conclusions 
whatsoever about God from his works. God remains an absolute mystery, a 
mere source of consolation that is compatible with the most desolating 
evil." 76 Indeed, the problem of theodicy is central to Harris' rejection (and, 
it could be argued, his definition) of theology, and he declares that 
"theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance," 77 wholly 
on the grounds that is has failed to satisfactorily resolve that problem. Given 
the existence of human suffering, "liberal theology must stand revealed for 
what it is: the sheerest of mortal pretenses. The theology of wrath has far 
more intellectual merit." 78 To have so much as recognized the existence of 
"liberal theology" could be considered a kind of charity on Harris' part. The 
impression formed by nearly every other statement he makes on the subject 
is that there is no such thing. That would no doubt come as a surprise to 
most of the prominent theologians of the 20 th century, as, for example, Paul 
Tillich, whom Harris describes as a "blameless parish of one." 79 

It would be possible, no doubt, to gather up such criticisms and infer from 
them an at least semi-cohesive theology. It seems clear, for example, when 
Harris writes, "If God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of humans, 
his will is not inscrutable," that he means to approve a theology of wrath, 
against any supposition that, "We cannot say, for instance, that God was 
wrong to drown most of humanity in the flood of Genesis, because this is 
merely the way it seems from our limited point of view." 80 Are all gods, 
then, necessarily benevolent? But, on the whole, there is less in either book 
to convict Harris of practicing covert theology than there is in The God 
Delusion, and he could, no doubt, evade the charge by arguing that such 
speculation was merely tactical, allowing him to drive a wedge between 
liberal and fundamentalist theists. 

God Is Not Great also contains a few brief gestures at theology. Some of 
them suggest the outlines of what could be called the Candide argument, 
which bases its rejection of theism on the premise that any Creator that 
actually existed would have created a better world than this one. For 
example, in discussing the independent evolution of two sets of eyes in 
three different species of fish, Hitchens asserts that a "creative deity, of 

75 LtaCN, 83 

76 LtaCN, 48 

77 TEoF, 173 

78 LtaCN, 48 

79 TEoF, 65 

80 LtaCN, 48 & 49 

Covert Theology 75 

course, would have been more likely to double the complement of optics in 
the first place," rather than leave the task to evolution, "which would have 
left us with nothing to wonder about, or to discover." 81 The phrase "of 
course" conveniently stands in for any explanation of why that should be 
considered "more likely." The God of Hitchens' theology apparently has a 
plan that precludes any use or space for wonder or discovery. Though it is 
unclear whether or not Hitchens has Leibnitz (or, for that matter, Voltaire's 
caricature, Pangloss) in mind, it seems likely that such theological 
declarations are built in opposition to some prior conception of God. So 
much heavier is the irony when he writes, "though I dislike to differ with 
such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did 
not exist it would be necessary to invent him." When it suits his purpose, 
Hitchens does just that. But the god he implies we would have to find if any 
were to exist remains unfocused, thoroughly blunt and awkward as a tool of 

Perhaps this is because Hitchens regards theology as a ship that has 
already sailed. "Religion," he declares, "spoke its last intelligible or noble 
or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it has mutated into an 
admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave 
Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them." 
Presumably Hitchens arrived at that estimate of Bonhoeffer 's theological 
worth by studying some of the theologian's several dissertations or the 
dozen or so books that he wrote even during the period of his resistance to 
the Nazi party, but if so, he does not say which. Bonhoeffer belongs to the 
post-Newman era, the age of Reason. As such, his primary value lies in his 
martyrdom for humanism, as Hitchens' eulogy implies, rather than in the 
work to that occupied the decade and more before his death. "We shall have 
no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter," Hitchens concludes, 
"which is why the devotions of today are only echoing the repetitions of 
yesterday, sometime ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the 
terrible emptiness." 52 

Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides and Newman: Hitchens confidently 
predicts that posterity will "never again have to confront the impressive 
faith" of theologians of that caliber. The reason, he explains, is that, "Faith 
of that sort - the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation 
with reason - is now plainly impossible." 83 It was possible then only 
because the great theologians "were living in a time of abysmal ignorance 

81 GING, 84 

82 GING, 7 

83 GING, 63 

y6 Against the Irreligious Right 

and fear." 84 Not only does this suggest a caricature of the past, as well as 
belief in the irreversibly progressive direction of history; it also deliberately 
blurs the boundaries of their theology. "Aquinas half believed in astrology," 
Hitchens confides, "and was convinced that the fully formed nucleus (not 
that he would have known the word as we do) of a human being was 
contained inside each individual sperm." We need not even wonder whether 
these are accurate representations of Aquinas' thought, since Hitchens does 
not bother to explain how either bears on the claim that God exists. 

Presumably, he does not intend for such complaints to attack traditional 
theology at the level of logical argument; to do so would require that he 
recognize that theology does, after all, contain such arguments. He denies 
that implicitly when he calls theology "faith of that sort" and pits it "in a 
confrontation with reason," as though reason were an invention of the 
Renaissance or Enlightenment. 85 If we can agree that "Augustine was a self- 
centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus," then we need not even 
begin to consider the arguments he made concerning God. Hitchens does 
not seem to consider that a form of ad hominem, nor does it strike him as a 
species of genetic fallacy to dismiss the whole lot by proclaiming that, 
"Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody - not 
even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from 
atoms - had the smallest idea what was going on." Notably, when he does 
turn to address the arguments themselves, he engages not Augustine or 
Aquinas, Maimonides or Newman, but rather the watchmaker argument of 
William Paley. 

But all of that has been addressed in the discussion of Dawkins' theology. 
Hitchens' more characteristic contribution is the clairvoyance with which he 
declares the field of theology dead. His complaint is not that theology never 
had a proper subject matter, as Dawkins quips; when humanity was in its 
infancy, theology was the best it could do, but it has since put away such 
childish things. There have been no great theologians since the death of 
Cardinal Newman at the end of the 19 th century, nor could there have been 
any. Everything written on the subject in the 120 years since belongs to the 
post-history of theology, a wasteland littered with the work of Karl Barth, 
Teilhard de Chardin, Martin Buber, Rudolf Otto, Charles Taylor, Alvin 
Plantinga and so on, and so forth. Perhaps they would have been grateful if 
someone had informed them, prior to the 2 1 st century, of the death of their 

But we need not suppose that Newman wrote the final comprehensible 
word on god. It remains possible to take Hitchens' declaration of the end of 

84 GING, 64 

85 More on this theme in "The Heirs of La Coterie Holbachique." 

Covert Theology yy 

theology seriously by interpreting his own slight gestures towards a 
personal theology as indicative of the culmination of the field. That is to 
say, the final work of theology may be only the definition of a god so 
unacceptable that the theologian himself literally cannot believe it exists. I 
see no way to deny that, if affirmed, such a theological conception would 
form, very much literally, a terminal point for the history theology. It gives 
substance to Nietzsche's much quoted and frequently misunderstood 
allegation that we have killed God. 

Since Hitchens does not actually address the arguments of contemporary 
theology directly, the reader is left to merely suppose that he has actually 
inquired into them, though we can only guess at which texts he may have 
read. Perhaps all of them. If we are generous, we may assume so. After all, 
he need not have made any such grandiose proclamations about the future 
of theology at all, and it would be highly presumptuous of him to assume 
the untenability of arguments with which he is not familiar. The ungenerous 
alternative is to suppose that he has issued his categorical dismissal in order 
to give substance to the pretense that he is qualified to judge the theological 
enterprise, precisely because he stands at the end of it. More than that, it 
allows him to reverse the accusation, to charge the modern theologians with 
neglect, since they have failed to address the impossible gods of the 
Horsemen's own theology. 

The Diagnostics df Belief 

If the Four Horsemen are to be believed, nothing could be more 
imperative for the maintenance of civilization than to understand the nature 
of religious faith. "The argument with faith," Hitchens writes, "is the 
foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning - but not 
the end - of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human 
nature." 1 He agrees with Harris that there is a "confrontation between faith 
and civilization," one that is made critical by the advent of more and more 
destructive weaponry. 2 Yet he never manages to give the same precision to 
the word faith as he does to his condemnation of it. He seems to use it in the 
two familiar senses of, in the first place, a type of mental activity, as in "to 
have faith in a doctrine"; and in the second, of social cohesion around a 
body of doctrine, as in "the Islamic faith." But those two senses are related, 
and it is not always clear where one sense leaves off and the other begins. 
To understand precisely what faith means in the context of God Is Not 
Great, it becomes necessary to read between the lines. 

It is, first of all, limited to the religious. "Our beliefs are not beliefs," 
Hitchens assures us, speaking of those who have grasped his four 
irreducible objections to religion. "Our principles are not a faith." 3 He 
declares the totalitarian societies of the 20 th century "fundamentalist and, as 
we would now say, 'faith -based,'" 4 less to show that secular systems are 
likewise vulnerable to the appeal of faith than to suggest that totalitarianism 
is never truly secular. "All that the totalitarians have demonstrated," he 
argues, "is that the religious impulse - the need to worship - can take even 

1 GING, 12 

2 GING, 280 

3 GING, 5 

4 GING, 250 


80 Against the Irreligious Right 

more monstrous forms if it is repressed." Thus, Hitchens departing from a 
trip to North Korea "was leaving a totalitarian state and also a religious 
one." 5 He agrees, in short, with Orwell that, "A totalitarian state is in effect 
a theocracy" 6 though from a strictly categorical perspective that seems to 
get the relationship precisely backwards: theocracy is a form of 
totalitarianism, and not vice versa. 

All of this suggests, though Hitchens never quite comes to the point, that 
faith is a means of controlling behavior. Harris gives a more explicit 
account of that connection, but for the meantime it should be sufficient to 
note that Hitchens judges faith-based behavior in primarily moral terms, and 
finds it lacking. He provides one telling example in the figure of Joseph 
Kony, the Ugandan warlord of the Lord's Resistance Army noted for its 
fervor and savagery. Hitchens compares Kony's Christianity with that of 
one of the rehabilitation centers he visited, where the victims of the LRA's 
violent activity were tended to, and where he asked one of the volunteers 
how he knew which was "the truest believer," he or Kony. "Any secular or 
state -run outfit could be doing what he was doing - fitting prosthetic limbs 
and providing shelter and 'counseling' - but in order to be Joseph Kony one 
had to have real faith." 7 Presumably no one who lacked such faith could be 
a warlord. More to the point, perhaps, Hitchens insists, "that ethics and 
morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it." 8 
This may be because "conscience is innate," a lesson Hitchens claims to 
derive from Plato, despite recognizing that Socrates himself credited a 
divinely inspired interior voice. 9 Presumably no faith was involved in 
Socrates' decision to trust his daimon. 

Either way, that imperative - the insistence that ethics and morality 
cannot be derived from faith - seems to draw Hitchens into self- 
contradiction, since God Is Not Great abounds with examples of religious 
believers deriving ethical provisions from premises taken on faith. The 
catch is simply that Hitchens disagrees with their ethical perspective, 
finding it abhorrent. He would not likely frame the disagreement in quite 
those terms. The problem, from his perspective, is that "religion and faith 
and superstition distort our whole picture of the world." 10 The corrective for 
such distortion rests with reason, but faith and reason are inherently at odds 

5 GING, 247-248 

6 from Orwell's "The Prevention of Literature," (1947), quoted in GING, 232 

7 GING, 189 

8 GING, 52; see "Landscape and Zeitgeists" for discussion of how morals 
sometimes are, in fact, derived from religious thought. 

9 GING, 256 
1° GING, 41 

The Diagnostics df Belief 8l 

with one another. Reason, even in the relatively undeveloped guise of pure 
skepticism, dispels faith, and so faith, at its strongest, resists reason. At 
times, though, faith lacks conviction, and religion betrays itself in the 
attempt "to escape mere reliance on faith and instead offer 'evidence' in the 
sense normally understood." 11 That, for Hitchens, is the essence of theology. 
Ultimately, it is doomed. Faith bears the indelible mark of its religious 
origins in "the period of human prehistory where nobody [...] had the 
smallest idea what was going on." That inheritance is writ large in the major 
conflicts of the modern era, and so, "All attempts to reconcile faith with 
science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule for precisely these 
reasons." 12 Perhaps worst of all, faith is proactive, intrusively so. "It ought 
to be possible for me to pursue my studies and researches in one house," 
writes Hitchens, "and for the Buddhist to spin his wheel in another. But 
contempt for the intellect has a strange way of not being passive." 13 

The closest Hitchens gives us to a diagnostic understanding of faith 
comes, perhaps not surprisingly, in the midst of his defense against 
misrepresentations of atheism. "Those who have believed what the priests 
and rabbis and imams tell them about what the unbelievers think and about 
how they think, will find further such surprises as we go along. They will 
perhaps come to distrust what they are told - or not take it 'on faith,' which 
is the problem to begin with." 14 If those two sentences are taken as 
indicative of the phenomenon as Hitchens conceives it, then it becomes 
possible to draw a number of conclusions about the nature of faith. They tell 
us that faith descends from authority; that it is a matter of unquestioning 
trust; that it is, first of all, passive, even if, once accepted, it must be 
defended aggressively. Most significantly, his defense also makes explicit 
an important connection that, elsewhere, Hitchens is mostly content to leave 
implied: that between faith and belief. 

Some form of that general scheme is evident in the work of each of the 
Four Horsemen. I have started the inquiry with Hitchens because, though it 
represents an important component of his critique of religion, he devotes the 
fewest pages and the least acumen to understanding the function of faith 
and belief. The End of Faith and Breaking the Spell make that concern 
central, and treat it at greatest length. Yet, without some suggestion that the 
cognitive activity of the religious differs critically from that of atheists, 
much of the critique offered by the work of the Four Horsemen would feel 
gutted and feeble. It informs nearly every passage of all six books, 

11 GING, 97 

12 GING, 64-65 

13 GING, 203-204 
14 G/A/G, 10 

82 Against the Irreligious Right 

sometimes so implicit that it evades notice altogether unless the reader 
pauses to imagine what the argument would look like without it. 

Dawkins, for example, summarizes the proofs offered by the Catholic 
Encyclopedia for the existence of purgatory thus: 

If the dead simply "went to heaven or hell on the basis of their sins 
while on Earth, there "would be no point in praying for them. 'For 
"why pray for the dead, if there be no belief in the power of prayer to 
afford solace to those who as yet are excluded from the sight of 
God.' And we do pray for the dead, don't we? Therefore purgatory 
must exist, otherwise our prayers "would be pointless! Q.E.D. This 
seriously is an example of what passes for reasoning in the 
theological mind. 15 

That last incredulous remark could almost be excused as an innocent turn of 
phrase were it the only time Dawkins had made use of it. As it happens, 
variations on the term "theological mind" or "religious mind" recur 
throughout The God Delusion with surprising regularity, and never convey 
anything more sophisticated than approbation. 

Not only the proofs for purgatory offered by the Catholic Encyclopedia, 
but likewise the concept of purgatory itself "offers a preposterous revelation 
of the way the theological mind works." 16 That applies not only to 
theological concepts, but to scientific theory as well, and we are duly 
informed of "the difficulty the theological mind has in grasping where the 
complexity of life comes from." 17 That, in part, may be the reason that 
"confusion arises in the religious mind" over the proper use of the anthropic 
principle. 18 "The president of a historical society in New Jersey," we are 
told, "wrote a letter that so damningly exposes the weakness of the religious 
mind, it is worth reading twice." The passage Dawkins reprints actually 
expresses a difference of opinion quite cordially, and addresses it to no less 

15 TGD, 403; actually, as the context of the Encyclopedia entry makes clear, 
the passage Dawkins has quoted is meant to substantiate only the claim 
that, "The proofs for the Catholic position, both in Scripture and in Tradition, 
are bound up also with the practice of praying for the dead," not that the 
practice itself proves the concept. 

16 TGD, 401 

17 TGD, 179-180 

18 TGD, 164; see "Covert Theology" for the suggestion that Dawkins has 
likewise misinterpreted the anthropic principle, and to much the same end. 

The Diagnostics df Belief 83 

daunting an intellect than Albert Einstein, but Dawkins assures us that it 
nevertheless "drips with intellectual and moral cowardice." 19 

The much publicized case of Edgardo Mortara, 20 the 19 th century child of 
Italian parents who was secretly baptized and then made a ward of the 
Roman Curia, "is particularly revealing of the religious mind, and the evils 
that arise specifically because it is religious." Dawkins apparently sees that 
case as especially demonstrative, as he repeats the term "religious mind" a 
sentence later to point out its tendency to take precedence "over everything 
that ordinary common sense and human feeling would see as important." 
And again, that the parents would not convert in order to have their son 
back is taken to demonstrate "the fatuousness of the religiously 
indoctrinated mind." Dawkins, for his part, can "think only of poor little 
Edgardo - unwittingly born into a world dominated by the religious mind," 
but for good measure, he throws in a few more mentions of the religious 
mind: one to cite the sincerity of the Catholic apologists as proof of "the 
power of (mainstream, 'moderate') religion to warp judgment and pervert 
ordinary human decency," and another to level a charge of "crass 
insensitivity to normal human feelings - an insensitivity that comes all too 
easily to a mind hijacked by religious faith." 21 

Robert Swinburne's moral argument for theodicy he calls a "grotesque 
piece of reasoning, so damningly typical of the theological mind," then 
quotes Peter Atkins as "splendidly" suggesting that Swinburne "rot in 
hell." 22 Likewise, "A certain kind of religious mind cannot see the moral 
difference between killing a microscopic cluster of cells on the one hand, 
and killing a full-grown doctor on the other." 23 Paul Hill was apparently one 
such person, and was executed in 2003 for the murder of Dr. John Britton 
and his bodyguard. Dawkins writes, "I don't think Paul Hill was a 
psychopath. Just very religious." Ditto for Michael Bray, who had supported 
Hill. "I actually quite liked him," Dawkins confides, adding that "his mind 
had unfortunately been captured by religious nonsense." 24 By much the 
same token, Isaac Watts must have had is "mind tuned to theology" when he 
wrote a hymn thanking God that he was "born of Christian Race / And not a 
Heathen or a Jew," and Kurt Wise's "pathetic and contemptible" adoption of 

19 TGD, 38 

20 TGD, 349-354 

21 See "The Irreligious Right" for discussion of how Dawkins' characterization 
of religious education as "child abuse" implicitly makes the case for 
analogous forms of intervention. 

22 TGD, 89 

23 TGD, 333 

24 TGD, 334-335 

84 Against the Irreligious Right 

Christian Creationism "brings to the surface what is secretly going on 
underneath, in the minds of fundamentalists generally, when they encounter 
scientific evidence that contradicts their beliefs." 25 

The repetition draws attention to the generalization. It is, as the sections 
on Harris and Dennett will show, difficult enough to draw any sharp 
conclusions about a person's beliefs even when they claim to believe 
something. For Dawkins, it is not enough to draw inferences about the 
workings of Swinburne's mind, or Paul Hill's, or that of the president of a 
New Jersey historical society. Those figures are representative as mere 
specimens of an abstract ideal, "the religious mind," that presumably 
operates on a different set of principles from that which prevails in the 
minds of secularists. Indeed, "atheism nearly always indicates a healthy 
independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind," 26 whereas religion may 
be likened to a "virus of the mind." 27 Hitchens points to much the same 
conclusion when he writes that, "The connection between religious faith 
and mental disorder is, from the viewpoint of the tolerant and the 
'multicultural,' both very obvious and highly unmentionable." 28 
Indoctrination, Dawkins speculates, takes advantage of the instinctual trust 
children have for authority figures in order to infect them with such mind 
viruses; 29 moreover, religion as a whole may be an example of 
paedomorphosis, "the retention into adulthood of childhood 
characteristics." 30 

Whether the analogy is to pathology or psychology, the gist is the same: 
religious minds are functionally different from normal adult minds. The 
language of Dawkins' discussion of Edgardo Mortara suggests that they are 
inhuman, and the qualifications Dawkins gives when discussing Paul Hill 
and Michael Bray assures us that it is specifically religion that has made 
them immune to normal human feeling. For something like a full diagnostic 
account of how religion accomplishes that feat, we shall have to turn to 
Harris; Dawkins, for his part, offers only a general and abstract 

25 TGD, 322 

26 TGD, 26 

27 TGD, 216; see also "Viruses of the Mind", published in A Devil's Chaplain 
and Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind, ed. Bo Dalhbom 

23 GING, 53 

29 TGD, 203-206 

30 TGD, 391-392 

The Diagnostics df Belief 85 


"The human brain," Harris writes, "is a prolific generator of beliefs about 
the world. In fact, the very humanness of any brain consists largely in its 
capacity to evaluate new statements of propositional truth in light of 
innumerable others that it already accepts." 31 In order to see the weakness 
of that proposition one need only reflect that computers already evaluate 
propositions in just that way, without thereby becoming believers. Yet your 
very humanity, as he would have it, is premised on your ability to assign a 
binary value - true or false - to any given proposition, and something about 
the religious mind compels it to act contrary to that nature. 

Harris first outlined that scheme in The End of Faith. Since that time, he 
has earned a PhD in neuroscience, and in the course of doing so seems to 
have encountered some factual challenges. To the end, we find him writing 
in The Moral Landscape that, 

There is no reason to think that any of our beliefs about the "world 
are stored as propositions, or "within discrete structures, inside the 
brain. Merely understanding a simple proposition often requires the 
unconscious activation of considerable background knowledge and 
an active process of hypothesis testing 32 

Nevertheless, Harris is eager to insist on the propositional character of 
belief. Thus he qualifies that acknowledgment by declaring, "And yet our 
beliefs can be represented and expressed as discrete statements." He seems 
to regard that vulnerability to translation as an adequate foundation on 
which to build a complete diagnostic of belief in propositional terms. 

The central, defining premise of his account is that, "To believe a 
proposition we must endorse, and thereby become behaviorally susceptible 
to, its representational content." 33 That axiom may be broken down into a 
series of simpler claims. The first is, that belief relates specifically to the 
statement of a proposition; the second, that belief is primarily a form of 
endorsement, or, as described by the title of the section of The End of Faith 
from which Harris' premise is drawn, "a matter of true and false"; the third, 
that the potential for action rests in the endorsement of a proposition; and 
the fourth, that beliefs are primarily, if not exclusively, representational. 
Additionally, "There are good reasons to think that the process happens 

31 TEoF, 51 

32 TML, 116 

33 TEoF, 60-61 

86 Against the Irreligious Right 

quite automatically - and, indeed, that the mere comprehension of an idea 
may be tantamount to believing it, if only for a moment." These claims 
prove vastly consequential, and each must be verified before we can accept 
his synthetic argument. 

Before we begin evaluating those premises, though, it is important to 
notice a semantic confusion that runs throughout Harris' account, namely 
between the declarative and imperative modes. For example, he argues that, 
because our beliefs naturally aspire to the status of knowledge, "we cannot 
help but value evidence and demand that propositions about the world 
logically cohere." 34 At the very least, it overstates the case to say that we 
cannot; at worst, it involves him in a logical contradiction. Experience 
shows that we are, after all, capable of ignoring the value of evidence, even 
denying it, in certain contexts. Harris himself waves away the mountain of 
evidence and analysis marshaled by Robert Pape on the subject of suicide 
terrorism, with no comment on the reliability of the evidence itself. He 
justifies his dissent with the utterly unsubstantiated (and arguably ad 
hominem) argument that "most commentators on this infernal wastage of 
life" are, like Pape, "unable to imagine what it would be like to actually 
believe what millions of Muslims profess to believe." 35 In so arguing, he 
places the value of his own theory above the value of evidence. Thus, to 
take the earlier claim seriously, we must read it as a hyperbolic way of 
emphasizing his conviction that we ought to value evidence and demand 
logical coherence. 

This is-ought problem infects the whole of Harris' diagnostic account of 
belief, 36 and can make it difficult to discern when exactly the reader is 
meant to take a declaration at face value. It might even be possible to read 
Harris' assertion that propositions are the (presumably exclusive) content of 
belief not as a declaration of what beliefs are, but rather as an imperative 
outlining what they should be. In practice, belief tends to be messier than 
that. Specifically, it seems that Harris has gotten the relationship of belief to 
propositional truth almost precisely backwards. Nearly any belief can be 
converted into a proposition. Such conversion ultimately proves necessary 
if we are to discuss beliefs logically, but it does not follow that belief 
formation involves the evaluation of propositional statements, nor that we 
can perform such conversion without loss to the substance of some beliefs. 
Harris' treatment suggests the logical priority of propositional evaluation, 
but there is, as yet, no reason to suppose that such propositions 
chronologically or psychologically precede belief as a matter of course, and 

34 TEoF, 51 

35 TEoF, 260, fn. 2 

36 As well as his account of morality; see "Landscapes and Zeitgeists." 

The Diagnostics df Belief 87 

perhaps more reason (much of it provided by The Moral Landscape) to 
suppose the exact reverse. 

Nor is it particularly clear how Harris intends to square his narrow focus 
on true-false assessment with the claim that "the human brain is a prolific 
generator of beliefs about the world" 37 , which seems to suggest a more 
creative, rather than analytical, behavior. In fact, his account almost entirely 
avoids the question of belief formation. That the brain evaluates "new 
statements of propositional truth in light of innumerable others that it 
already accepts" suggests the prior existence of beliefs, but Harris never 
explains how we arrive at those prior beliefs, nor where the propositions we 
evaluate come from. As far as The End of Faith is concerned, they come 
from nowhere at all, or are discoverable parts of the natural landscape. 
"Belief, in this sense," he tells us, "is what philosophers generally call a 
'propositional attitude.'" 38 Where Harris has gone wrong, I would suggest, 
is in treating belief from the outset as though it were always consciously 
propositional, or could always be translated into propositional terms with no 
change to the content of that belief. 

To illustrate, suppose that we confront a subject with the proposition that 
her husband loves her, and ask her whether or not she believes that 
proposition. "Yes," she answers, but the affirmation is only the claim to 
believe; it is not the belief itself. It is possible that, at the time, she does not 
really feel that her husband loves her (perhaps because he has been rather 
aloof that day), and that she has affirmed the proposition only intellectually, 
because she thinks it likely that, tomorrow, or a week from now, she will 
feel differently. It could be said, though not quite in the sense that Dennett 
explains it, that she believes in the belief; in other words, that she believes 
that she has reason to believe the proposition, even if, cognitively or 
emotionally, something prevents her from committing to it. In that case, the 
translation of belief into a propositional statement fails to encompass the 
experience of belief. 

Harris likewise struggles with presenting that experience; the furthest he 
can get is to say that some commentators simply do not understand what it 
is like to believe, without himself providing a description of the experience. 
The very fact that he acknowledges an interior quality to belief contradicts 
his assertion that belief is strictly a matter of affirming a binary proposition. 

Moreover, he writes, "Belief, in the epistemic sense - that is, belief that 
aims at representing our knowledge about the world - requires that we 
believe a given proposition to be true, not merely that we wish it were so." 39 

37 TEoF, 51 

38 TEoF, 246 fn. 3 

39 TEoF, 61-62 

88 Against the Irreligious Right 

It is worth noting, first of all, that he has simply presumed there to be an 
epistemic sense of belief. That belief must correspond to some state of the 
world - that it is, in other words, a propositional attitude - implies that there 
is no other sense by which to understand belief. Moreover, even as he 
asserts that epistemic sense, he seems intent on preserving a distinction 
between belief and knowledge, i.e. "belief that aims at representing our 
knowledge." The imprecision of his language invites confusion. If, for 
example, knowledge is not a species of belief, then what is it? How does 
belief "represent" knowledge? It may only be by entertaining such 
imprecision that Harris is able to insist that belief necessarily entails the 
affirmation of a proposition. He attempts to bolster it by locating that 
logical imperative in the language itself. Thus he argues that the word 
"because" necessarily "suggests a causal connection between a 
proposition's being true and a person's believing that is." 40 And further on: 
"There must be some causal connection, or an appearance thereof, between 
the fact in question and my acceptance of it." 41 

Experience tells us that need not be so; "because" need only suggest a 
causal connection between some imperative and a given belief, as it does in 
the statement, "I believe Harris would not advocate executing Archbishop 
Desmond Tutu for his religious beliefs because I prefer to believe that 
Harris is a reasonable man." The latter clause need not be true in order to 
account for the former. The imperative the drives a given belief may be 
correspondence to fact, but it may also be fidelity to theory, or emotional 
preference. It is, at any rate, by no means clear that we form beliefs as a 
binary response to a proposition. Nevertheless, Harris argues, "To believe 
that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence 
such that his existence itself is the reason for my belief" In so arguing, 
Harris has erroneously conflated theism with apologetic. Indeed, the 
arguments presented not only by Harris, but also by Dawkins, often seem to 
suffer from a failure to distinguish between the two. To believe that 
Germany will win the next World Cup is decidedly not to believe that I 
stand in some relation to the event such that its having occurred is the 
reason for my belief, since I can entertain the belief even though it is 
impossible for me to stand in epistemic relation to the event. But to believe 
that it will happen and to argue that it is logically or evidentially necessary 
are two different activities. 42 In the latter, as in the attempt to demonstrate 
the existence of God, the argument must ultimately connect the proposition 

40 TEoF, 62 

41 TEoF, 63 

42 Cf. e.g. John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of 
Assent, Part 1 , on the distinction between inference and assent. 

The Diagnostics df Belief 8g 

to the fact. Harris has failed to demonstrate that belief itself is so 

Moreover, he has failed to demonstrate that it necessarily should be 
constrained to direct correspondence with objective fact. If beliefs can be 
narrowly construed as principles of action, as Harris insists that they may, 
then the objective truth of what is affirmed by them becomes, from a strictly 
behavioral point of view, incidental. It then becomes possible to justify 
belief on the basis that it makes possible a desired program of action. That, 
in essence, is the position described by American pragmatists like the late 
Richard Rorty. 43 

It need not be denied that a statement of belief can, as Harris suggests, 
imply an epistemic claim to the effect that the truth of the proposition is the 
cause of the belief, but it does not follow that all beliefs entail that 
relationship. Defaulting again to the descriptive where the imperative would 
be more appropriate, he argues that, 

I cannot say, however, "I believe that God exists because it is prudent 
to do so" (as Pascal "would have us do.) Of course, I can say this, but I 
cannot mean by the "word "believe" what I mean when I say things 
like "I believe that "water is really two parts hydrogen and one part 
oxygen because two centuries of physical examination attest to this" 
or "I believe there is an oak in my yard because I can see it." 

This implies that a person's grounds for entertaining any given belief bear 
directly on the meaning of belief in general. There are no grounds for 
supposing that to be so. In the case of belief as a propositional attitude, it 
certainly does not change the fact that they have affirmed the proposition in 
question. If we wish to preserve the form of his argument, we could say, 
rather, that the speaker does not mean "because" in the same sense in both 
sets of statements, but to argue that the effect falls on the term "belief" 
seems a particularly dubious species of sophistry. 

Nor is it certain that the preceding can be satisfactorily squared with the 
point to which Harris is leading, namely that "beliefs are principles of 
action" 44 The route by which he arrives at that conclusion is evolutionary 

43 Cf. e.g. "Truth without Correspondence to Reality", collected in Philosophy 
and Social Hope (Penguin: 1999) for a relatively unencumbered statement of 
the pragmatic view of the relationship between objective truth and programs 
of action. See "Landscapes and Zeitgeists" for more on the similarities 
between Harris' arguments and pragmatic philosophy. 

44 TEoF, 52 

go Against the Irreligious Right 

and instrumental in nature: belief has proven useful in that it allows us to 
make predictions about the world, and thus to tailor our actions to predicted 
circumstances. 45 It may even be true that the capacity for belief evolved in 
that way, but as a basis for defining belief, the evolutionary account proves 
problematic. It is one thing to say that a capacity for belief is a necessary 
condition for anticipatory behavior, and quite another to say that, therefore, 
belief is strictly limited to the role it plays in facilitating such behavior. 
Nothing in Harris' account logically compels us to suppose that, alongside 
the beliefs that are principles of action, there might not be some class of 
beliefs that are not. 

We may say this much, at least: some beliefs appear to be only potentially 
actionable. In Breaking the Spell, Dennett claims to believe that e=mc 2 . 
Given that he is, by his own admission, "not really believing the 
proposition' but merely "believing that whatever proposition is expressed 
by the formula 'e=mc 2 ' is true," it is difficult to see how that proposition 
could itself be a principle of action for Dennett. It is, in the context of both 
Dennett's understanding and experience, a trivial belief. If Dennett were to 
appear on a game show, he would no doubt answer in accordance with that 
belief when asked the equation described by Einstein's theory of relativity. 
But Dennett continues to believe the proposition, even when his trivial 
belief stands no chance of winning him cash and prizes, ie. even when it is 
not actionable. 

For Harris, the correspondence of belief to propositional language, and 
thus to behavioral possibility, is embedded in the very structure of the 
world. "Words are arranged in a systematic and rule-based way (syntax)," 
he declares, "and beliefs are likewise (in that they must logically cohere), 
because both body and world are so arranged." 46 That analogy leaves much 
to be desired, since few languages fail to conceal a number of irregularities. 
Some, like English, actually thrive on those irregularities. More to the point 
is his claim that beliefs are (note the declarative) arranged likewise, and 
precisely because they reflect the structure of the body and of the world. 
This is a more controversial line of reasoning than Harris concedes. If 
nothing else, it depends on the a priori claim that "certain logical relations" 
may be "etched into the very structure of our world." 47 As it turns out, there 
is no way to verify that premise, since logic determines the shape of any 

45 Cp. Dennett's analysis in Freedom Evolves; given Dennett's penchant for 
constructing new books out of excerpts from previous books, it is interesting 
to note that, except for the concept of intentional states, the related 
discussion is not reprised in Breaking the Spell. 

46 TEoF, 58 

47 TEoF, 54 

The Diagnostics df Belief gi 

systematic inquiry we might make into the structure of the world. It is, 
again, possible that he has gotten the actual relationship backwards: that 
logic has the appearance of being etched into the structure of the world 
because we see the world through the lens of human logic. 48 

If Harris forges boldly on, it would seem that his ultimate goal is to 
establish the phenomenon of belief as the ground on which to stake some 
claim of objective access to the world. In brief: "There is a point at which 
the meanings of words, their syntactical relations, and rationality itself can 
no longer be divorced from the orderly behavior of objects in the world." 49 
The purported relationship between reason and the structure of the world 
provides Harris with an opportunity for arguing that beliefs necessarily 
behave according to rule-bound relationships. "The first thing to notice 
about beliefs," Harris writes, "is that they must suffer the company of their 
neighbors. Beliefs are both logically and semantically related." 50 That 
would certainly be true of a logical proposition, but its applicability to belief 
remains an open question. Here, in particular, the is-ought confusion reigns. 
For example, "When going to a friend's home for dinner," he writes, "I 
cannot both believe that he lives north of Main Street and south of Main 
Street and then act on the basis of what I believe." 51 But only a page later he 
provides an anecdote in which he and his wife entertain opposing beliefs 
about the desirability of being near the American Embassy in Paris, and find 
that they have nevertheless acted on both of those beliefs. On the basis of 
his own experience it ought to have been clear to Harris that we can, after 
all, simultaneously entertain mutually contradictory beliefs and act on those 
beliefs; surely he meant only that we "ought not" do so. 

That confusion cuts straight to the heart of the argument that "logical and 
semantic constraints appear to be two sides of the same coin, because our 
need to understand what words mean in each new context requires that our 
beliefs be free from contradiction (at least locally)." 52 Approximately how 
local that coherence must be is a matter of some import, and one upon 
which Harris fails to elaborate. The French archeologist and historian Paul 
Veyne has explored just that question in a challenging monograph entitled 

48 Functionally, Dennett's term "free-floating rationale" serves only to project 
certain logical relations onto the world as though it were objectively clear that 
the world functioned according to our explanations. To see how uncertain 
that formulation must always be, try to describe a "free-floating rationale" 
that isn't already the subject of theory. 

49 TEoF, 58-59 

50 TEoF, 53 

51 TEoF, 54 

52 TEoF, 53 

02 Against the Irreligious Right 

Did the Greeks Believe In Their Myths? 53, One much simplified way of 
putting his answer might be, "as locally or globally as the situation 
demands." In practice, humans are capable both of holding in close 
proximity two logically incompatible beliefs, and of ensuring logical 
consistency among an extensive array of independent beliefs. As we shall 
see when we return to the subject of Osama bin Laden's motives, Harris 
himself demonstrates that flexibility. If there is, as he argues, "a degree of 
logical inconsistency that is incompatible with our notion of personhood," 54 
then we may well ask whether or not he has crossed it. 

Moreover, even if we read his account as merely asserting the practical 
value of logical consistency, rather than, as he repeatedly insists, its strict 
necessity, there is still a fatal obstacle to its achievement, since "total 
coherence, even in a maximally integrated brain, would be impossible to 
achieve." 55 Thus, the reader has a choice of interpretations, one that is 
logically incoherent because it claims that, though self-delusion is clinically 
normal, logical coherence is necessary for personhood; or one that is 
frankly self-defeating, since it makes a necessity out of something that is 

This, like most of the firmly stated assertions of the chapter, is never 
given concrete form. Just as Harris never specifies what "degree of logical 
inconsistency [...] is incompatible with our notion of personhood," nor to 
what extent a person can, without sacrificing their humanness, "tacitly 
believe one proposition, while successfully convincing himself of its 
antithesis," he neglects to identify the objective point of contact that 
connects language and belief to the objective reality it sometimes aspires to 
describe. In light of the objections made here, the single most formidable 
task facing anyone who would defend Harris' account may be simply 
specifying the limits of so many vague and unverified claims. 


Allow that the same belief may be either actionable or merely potential, or 
that the action corresponding to a given belief may not be entirely 
inevitable, and Harris' argument falls apart. Returning to the bin Laden 
example, Pape has compellingly demonstrated 56 that jihadi organizations 

53 Chicago: 1988 

54 TEoF, 54 

55 TEoF, 57 

56 "The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," American Political Science 
Review 97, no 3 (2003), 20-32; also Dying to Win (Random House:2005). 

The Diagnostics df Belief 93 

are characteristically responsive to political concessions. Consideration of 
the historical evidence shows that terrorist campaigns typically follow a 
strategic logic. Once they have achieved a limited objective, it is reasonable 
to expect them to end. Were it clear that jihadi terrorists were committed to 
violence by their belief in religious absolutes, we could not reasonably 
expect that to be the case. Harris' rejection of Pape's research reveals the 
extent to which he is willing to assert the primacy of a narrowly construed 
relationship of belief to behavior. 

Because the relationship of belief to action is, on his account, automatic, 
their professed religious beliefs ought to render bin Laden and Al Zawahiri 
literally incapable of a strategic approach to limited goals. It seems Harris 
has made little allowance for the apparent fact that two people who hold the 
same belief will sometimes behave differently on the basis of some other 
criteria: e.g. temperament. This is one of those instances in which I would 
exhort the reader to choose kindness to Harris over the temptation to take 
his account seriously. If we took Harris at his word, then might it not be 
morally incumbent upon us to make sure that he never encounter anyone 
who professes one of those prohibited beliefs? After all, if beliefs are to be 
narrowly construed as principles of action, then how can we read his claim 
that it may be ethical to kill over some beliefs, save as an admission that 
Harris himself intends to kill? 

I would argue, rather, that Harris' temperament all but precludes him from 
any suspicion that he would actually kill someone on the basis of their 
beliefs alone. In the cases of bin Laden and Al Zawahiri we are justifiably 
much less confident, but not because of their beliefs alone. The beliefs 
Harris associates with their behaviors are by no means unique to terrorists. 
Among Muslims, there are, by Harris' accounting, a minimum of "200 
million avowed supporters of terrorism," 57 all of whom are required, if 
Harris is to be trusted, to believe that "a Muslim aspiration for world 
domination is explicitly enjoined by God," and that "martyrdom is the only 
way that a Muslim can bypass the painful litigation that awaits us all on the 
Day of Judgment and proceed directly to paradise." 58 Then by his logic we 
ought to expect there to be a minimum of 200 million active terrorists, and 
the inexplicable puzzle becomes, why are we infidels not already dead? The 
most logical possibilities are: that Harris has misrepresented Islam and its 
adherents; that Harris has gotten the nature of belief wrong; or that a 
significant proportion of that 200 million have misrepresented their beliefs. 
None of those possibilities are mutually exclusive. 

57 TEoF, 126 

58 TEoF, 34 

g^ Against the Irreligious Right 

In light of the problems entailed by Harris' account, allow me to sketch 
the rough outlines of an alternative diagnostic of belief. I have already 
suggested that we need not suppose, as Harris seems to, that the affirmation 
or rejection of fully formed propositions will be characteristic of belief 
formation. If nothing else, the exclusive association of belief with 
propositional attitudes would seem to require the prior acquisition of 
language, since propositions cannot be stated without some form of 
language. Harris certainly supposes so when he presumes to have 
demonstrated "that our beliefs are tightly coupled to the structure of 
language and to the apparent structure of the world." 59 

Given that restriction, how are we to account for the acquisition of 
language in the first place? A simple proposition, such as "the vegetable is 
green," depends on the association of the word "vegetable" with the object 
referred to, and the word "green" with a descriptor that may (or may not) 
pertain to that object. But the association that allows us to identify the 
object as a vegetable is, itself, a belief. That becomes clear when someone 
challenges us on it by telling us that what we have thought of as 
"vegetables" are not, after all, vegetables; tomatoes, as it turns out, are 
actually a variety of fruit. That necessarily changes our propositional 
attitude: the vegetable is not, after all, green; the fruit is. The difficulties 
grow more pronounced when are told that the color we were taught to think 
of as "green" is, in fact, red. 

That example is meant to suggest that propositional attitudes are 
necessarily founded on beliefs that cannot themselves be formed by the 
evaluation of propositions. Our earliest linguistic battery cannot be acquired 
propositi onally. We take this object to be a vegetable not because we 
considered the proposition that vegetables are a kind of edible plant matter 
- we could not very well evaluate the truth of that proposition without a 
prior battery of words - but because the association proved useful. A 
dissenting philosopher could argue that, because language is instrumental 
rather than genuinely descriptive, it makes more sense to suppose we 
acquire it as though we were evaluating the proposition "that thing is what 
others understand and mean by this word." Indeed, it may be useful in some 
contexts to translate the belief into that proposition, but it tells us more 
about what beliefs are and how they function to consider how they actually 
form. Naming is an activity of some interest to the last century of 
philosophical inquiry, 60 but I think it can be reasonably asserted, without 
prejudging the value of those inquiries, that we do not acquire a primary 

59 TEoF, 71 

60 Cf. esp. Naming and Necessity, Saul Kripke (Harvard: 1972) 

The Diagnostics df Belief 95 

language propositionally, nor do we treat it provisionally, but rather as a 
investment of belief. 

What I am suggesting - and it would be beyond the scope of this essay to 
do more than suggest - is that beliefs are better understood as the 
association of ideas. Stating a proposition is one way of associating ideas, 
but by no means the only. The role of belief in language acquisition 
suggests that propositional attitudes represent a higher order of complexity, 
since they can only be formed on the basis of the prior beliefs encompassed 
by the language in which those propositions are stated and understood. In 
order to form a belief, then, all that is needed are two ideas and a cognitive 
bridge between them. 

That cognitive bridge need not be especially precise at the point of 
formation. It can be given the precision of a propositional attitude later on, 
and that, for the most part, is what I mean when I say that beliefs may be 
translated into propositions. For example, the association of two ideas may 
be honed by confronting the believer with the need for action. A person 
who, when faced with an emergency, must count upon a friend in order to 
resolve the crisis, may suddenly, without their ever before having thought 
about it in propositional terms, realize that they believe their friend to be 
untrustworthy. The association of ideas was always there, but until that 
moment there had never been an occasion to make it, so to speak, 
propositional. That example shows how Harris' account may again have 
gotten the order of events backwards: here is it the action that entails the 
belief, and not vice versa. 

Granting those premises draws into question the relationship insisted 
upon by Harris between knowledge and belief. Contrary to most of what he 
has argued heretofore, I would suggest that there is a class of beliefs that do 
not aspire to the status of knowledge, and that such beliefs belong no less to 
the category of belief than beliefs "in the epistemic sense." This is to say 
that we do, after all, generate beliefs that overreach our epistemic potential, 
and that doing so can, and often does, benefit us. Temperament may not 
only, as suggested before, play a part in how we translate belief into action, 
but also in how we form the beliefs whereby we act. For example, we may 
form beliefs that are, to some extent, either pessimistic or optimistic, in 
accordance to our own dispositions. Such beliefs may be described as an 
estimate of the probability of a favorable outcome, especially where our 
epistemic limitations make an impracticable doubt or a total and 
incapacitating suspension of judgment the only strictly logical conclusion. 

Functionally, those beliefs which do aspire to the status of knowledge 
may ultimately belong to a subset of those that do not, rather than an 
altogether distinct class. That follows from a set of premises that The End of 
Faith, often only at the cost of contradicting itself, deliberately but 

06 Against the Irreligious Right 

unconvincingly evades. The first is that knowledge is a species of belief, 
distinguished less by the sort of mental activity that goes into each than by 
the discourse with which we surround each. On that account, the truly 
substantive difference between believing that e=mc 2 and knowing that 
e=mc 2 lies merely in whether or not we treat the belief as corresponding to 
fact. The second premise is that all belief originates in subjective mental 
states; or, put another way, that a mind is a necessary condition for the 
generation of beliefs. It becomes, then, necessary to consider what sort of 
thing a mind is. 61 

For our present purpose, the salient characteristic of a mind is its status as 
a closed system. The mind never operates on the direct objects of 
experience, but rather on the content of the mind itself. The intimations of 
the world that we receive from the senses are, at best, translations from a 
foreign text. 62 It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the 
closed nature of that system; indeed, its acceptance makes the first premise 
all but logically necessary, since what then could knowledge be but a 
species of belief? On the basis of those premises, it becomes possible to 
construct a viable alternative to Harris' view, one in which belief is 
constrained not by its correspondence to an objectively verifiable state of 
the world, but rather by the epistemic limitations that arise a consequence of 
our innate subjectivities. 

To say that the world is innately logical is much the same as saying that 
the world is innately visual, or tactile, or auditory; it may only seem so 
because it is by those senses that we have come to know the world in the 
first place. While it seems to us that we are touching the desk, modern 
physics tells us that what feels like direct contact is actually not contact at 
all, but rather the force of electrical charges repelling one another on the 
atomic level. Touch, as we understand it, is an experience existing only in 
the mind. Humans necessarily perceive the world according to human 
faculties, and logic is one such faculty. Could we perceive the world from 
some wholly different perspective, then we might be astonished to learn that 
the logic by which we think about the world is no less subjective and 
specific to human nature than are our other senses. 63 That may not be the 

61 Both premises are given fuller acknowledgment in The Moral Landscape - 
indeed, Harris adapts the second as the basis for much of his moral 
argument. Nevertheless, both are there framed so as to evade the 
consequences that seem to follow from them. 

62 Jacob Bronowksi has written elegantly on this theme; cf. esp. The Origins 
of Knowledge and Imagination, as well as Science and Human Values. 

63 Cf. On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Arthur 
Schopenhauer (1813). 

The Diagnostics df Belief gy 

account of belief and knowledge that we would prefer, but it does subject us 
less to the torturous contradictions and ambiguities of Harris' account. 

What do these considerations mean in the context of religious belief? I 
have suggested that beliefs form through the association of ideas; that those 
associations need not be strictly logical or even propositional; that they may 
also form as the consequence of other considerations, such as practical 
necessity, temperament, or alogical association. It is probable that much of 
the content of religious belief forms in some such same way. If those modes 
of formation are, in fact, as characteristic of belief as propositional 
evaluation - if, that is to say, they inform much of what we believe in 
general, even to the point of serving as the foundation for language 
acquisition - then the fact that they also inform religious belief is not, in and 
of itself, sufficient ground on which to build a categorical objection against 


One curious consequence of Harris argument is that it requires him to vouch 
for the sincerity of beliefs he does not, and presumably would not, endorse. 
Where he can successfully draw a plausible connection between such 
professions of belief and widely condemnable behavior, we find less reason 
to question his scrupulous credulity. Given both bin Laden's profession of 
belief in the divine favor bestowed on martyrs, and his involvement in 
suicide bombing campaigns, it is at least plausible that his behavior is, in 
fact, the direct causal result of those beliefs. In principle, then, some 
capacity for tracing such connections ought to be possible, even if it is 
granted that the causal effect of belief on behavior is only partial, or is 
modified by temperament. But it stretches that already tenuous principle to 
gainsay the professed beliefs of all religious believers who do not engage in 
extremist politics or violent resistance. The basic rhetorical strategy of 
Harris' account is to generalize from the seemingly inarguable cases, like 
bin Laden, to the less clear-cut examples of mundane religious belief. 

In other words: Dennett is right in arguing that, "When it comes to 
interpreting religious avowals of others, everybody is an outsider." 64 He 
means that profession of a belief is not always a reliable indication of what 
the person actually believes. In that sense, Dennett and Harris represent 
opposite poles of credulity. Harris argues that we can understand religion 
only by taking at face value what the most troublesome religious adherents 
profess to believe; Dennett, that not only can we not take such professions 
at face value, but that we understand religion best by assuming that they are 

64 BtS, 239 

g8 Against the Irreligious Right 

all motivated by an implicit and ulterior motive: belief in belief. 65 But that 
outsider status is hardly exclusive to religious belief, as Dennett's account 
might suggest; it applies equally well, for example, in the sphere of politics. 
Nearly the entire category of abstract belief proves vulnerable, including 
many of the sort of beliefs that Dennett himself espouses elsewhere, such as 
a belief in determinism. 66 Ultimately, we are outsiders even with respect to a 
belief like "the vegetable is green." By Dennett's standard, it overreaches 
our epistemic limits to assert anything more than that the subject believes 
that it is good to believe that the vegetable is green. It is a direct plunge 
from there, down the rabbit hole of Alice s Adventures in Wonderland. 

The more marked emphasis on profession of belief gives Breaking the 
Spell a complexity largely absent from the account given by Harris. It may 
not overstate the case to suggest that "belief in belief" - Dennett's formula 
for the endorsement of beliefs not necessarily believed by the endorser - 
stands at the center of his assessment of organized religion. 67 Consider how 
Dennett introduces the chapter on belief in belief: "The preceding chapters 
have laid some new foundations for this inquiry, but also uncovered some 
problems besetting it that need to be addressed before any effective 
confrontation between theism and atheism can take place." 68 That forms, so 
far as I can tell, the first serious break in his carefully maintained posture of 
neutrality: his first acknowledgment that Breaking the Spell is intended to 
stage such a confrontation. The seven preceding chapters served primarily 
to lay the foundations for the argument that follows. On his typically 
evolutionary account, "the robustness of the institution of religion doesn't 
depend on uniformity of belief at all; it depends on the uniformity of 
professing." 69 

That argument has at least one significant consequence for the scientific 
inquiry into science: it allows Dennett to shift the emphasis in research 
away from the role of the personal to the role of the social. In doing so, he 
presents himself as rescuing the study of religion from the "pre-emptive 
disqualification" by which, he insists, academics sympathetic to religion 
have sought to protect it. 70 Those include such scholars as the sociologist 
Emile Durkheim, the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, and the cultural 

65 Despite that stark divide, they push those arguments towards surprisingly 
consistent political ends; see "The Irreligious Right" 

66 Cf. eg. Freedom Evolves (Viking:2003) 

67 For Dennett's distinction between folk and organized religions, cf. "The 
Taxonomy of Religion." 

68 BtS, 200 

69 BtS, 224 

70 BtS, 258-264 

The Diagnostics df Belief gg 

anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Dennett does not condescend to consider 
their evidence, preferring instead to speculate on their motives. "What is 
transparent in all these claims," goes his dismissal, "is that they are not so 
much defeatists as protectionist: don't even try, because we're afraid you 
might succeed!" 

In opposing "the scholarly friends of religion," Dennett professes to be 
preserving "straightforward inquiry into the nature of religion" by 
confronting the argument that "we can never understand one another." It 
seems unlikely that the scholars he names had any such idea in mind. Far 
from having argued that, as Dennett's analogy would have it, "You'll never 
understand Indian street magic if you're not an Indian born into the caste of 
magicians," they seem to be arguing for a kind of provisional sympathy, one 
that seeks to see religious behavior from the viewpoint of the religious and, 
in doing so, better address religion, in accord with Dennett's program, as a 
phenomenon. So it is, at the very least, curious that he should feel it 
necessary to rebuff them. "They do want to study religion," he admits, "but 
only their way" - as though he was not likewise insisting on his way to the 
exclusion of others. How else are we to understand him when he argues 
that, "A social historian or an anthropologist who knows a great deal about 
the beliefs and practices of people all around the world but is naive about 
evolution" is as unlikely to "frame the issues well" as an "evolutionary 
biologist or a psychologist who knows only one religion at all well and has 
a smattering of (mis)information about the others"? 71 Meanwhile, he does 
not hesitate to play the victim: "Anyone who tries to bring an evolutionary 
perspective to bear on any item of human culture, not just religion, can 
expect rebuffs ranging from howls of outrage to haughty dismissal," 
presumably of just the sort he levels against Durkheim, Eliade and Geertz. 

The real conflict between Dennett and those scholars arises over 
Dennett's own canalization of the issue of belief. So that there is no 
mistake, my suggestion here is that, far from dispelling an "academic smoke 
screen," as he would have it, Dennett is seeking to undermine one approach 
to the study of religion in order to promote another, and specifically one that 
favors a confrontation between theism and atheism. Judging by the figures 
he has named, an epithet like "the scholarly friends of religion" may be 
taken to mean those for whom the question of what religion is, and of how 
it works, takes logical priority over the question of what we should do about 
it. Eliade's methodological axiom, that "A religious phenomenon will only 
be recognized as such if it is grasped at its own level," can be interpreted to 
mean only that the most important indicator of what makes religion a 
distinct phenomenon, worthy of special attention, is the value invested in it 

71 BtS, 104 

lOO Against the Irreligious Right 

by the religious. 72 If religious adherents value certain beliefs, then the 
beliefs themselves must be taken seriously - not necessarily as 
propositional attitudes, but certainly as subjects for study. 

In place of all those multivalent beliefs, Dennett substitutes the single, 
fungible value of belief in belief. Via that formula, he has not, as he seems 
to think, set aside the issue of belief, but rather reduced it to a single, elastic 
unit of exchange. The broad range of beliefs examined in the almost 100 
years of research spanning from Durkheim to Geertz are thereby monetized 
and converted into tokens of profession: their content stripped away, their 
meaning reduced to memetic proliferation. What they mean (if anything) 
and how they function (if at all) ceases to matter. The only question that 
need be asked of them is, what motivates the individual to profess them? 
Dennett's answer will always be, "belief in belief." Indeed, given the 
principle that we are always outsiders, no other answer could be 
comprehensible. Were any of them alive to defend their positions, the 
scholars he so easily dismisses might argue that such monetization of belief 
qualifies as a "greedy reductionism," to borrow Dennett's term, particularly 
to the extent that it beguiles us to "underestimate the complexities, trying to 
skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything 
securely and neatly to the foundation." 73 

It remains true that the nature of human subjectivity precludes our 
definitively distinguishing what any given subject sincerely believes from 
what they merely profess to believe. But it does not follow that belief in 
belief can reliably account for all significant features of religious belief, 
organized or otherwise. Dennett's formula functions in part to simply 
reduce the number of elements that count as significant features since, once 
granted, it sweeps away any feature related to belief, save for its profession. 

72 quoted in BtS, 259. Dennett cites Myth and Reality, (Harper & Row:1963) 
as the source, but I can find there no trace of the quotation. Rather, the 
original source appears to be the foreword to Patterns of Comparative 
Religion (Sheed & Ward:1958). Far from denying Dennett's evolutionary 
perspective, his point appears to be only that study ought to begin at the 
scale at which a given phenomenon takes on substance. Thus: "I do not 
mean to deny the usefulness of approaching the religious phenomenon from 
various different angles; but it must be looked at first of all in itself, in that 
which belongs to it alone and can be explained in no other terms." (xvii.) To 
illustrate how even a scientific approach can distort phenomenon when it 
views them from the wrong scale, he quotes Henri Poincare's analogy 
asking whether "a naturalist who had studied elephants only under the 
microscope would think he knew enough about those animals?" 

73 Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett (Simon & Schuster:1995) p. 82 

The Diagnostics df Belief ioi 

Our outsider status with respect to the beliefs of others means that the 
approach of looking to believers in order to determine the real content of 
religion can never aspire to statistical precision or absolute certainty. 
Nevertheless, advocates of that approach may have greater cause to suggest 
that Dennett's alternative is, itself, less defeatist than it is protectionist. 

He has, in strategic and rhetorical terms, much to lose. A central 
suggestion of this essay is that the use to which Dennett and Harris (and to a 
lesser degree, Dawkins and Hitchens) have put belief and its epistemic 
cognates is primarily discursive. At certain points, they each deny that 
discursive intent, as when Dennett writes that the idea driving his book "is 
not to bulldoze people with science, but to get them to see that things they 
already know, or could know, have implications for how they should want 
to respond to the issues under discussion." 74 Just how that differs from 
bulldozing them is unclear. He, more than most of his fellow Horsemen, is 
willing to admit that, "we must arrive at questions about ultimate values, 
and no factual investigation could answer them. Instead, we can do no 
better than to sit down and reason together, a political process of mutual 
persuasion and education that we can try to conduct in good faith." 75 The 
recognition that the process has a significantly political component marks a 
first step towards actually conducting that discussion in good faith, but he 
does not let it stand for long. Where there is disagreement, he cajoles the 
opposition to "discuss it calmly and openly, with no untrumpable appeals to 
the sacred, which have no place in such discussion" 76 - unless, of course, 
they are his sacred values, "democracy, justice, life, love and truth (in 
alphabetical order)," which are, on his account, "obvious and quite 
ecumenical." 77 Wherever the topic recurs in Breaking the Spell, it is to those 
ideals, particularly truth and democracy, that Dennett appeals when he 
hopes to silence dissent. 

One way that Dennett mitigates the values in which the other side of the 
discussion are necessarily grounded is by rapidly elevating belief in belief 
to the status of an explanatory principle. That principle explains, for 
example, "the historic processes by which polytheism turned into 
monotheism" by motivating "the migration of the concept of God in the 
Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) away from concrete 
anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts." 78 

74 BtS, 378 

75 BtS, 14 

76 BtS, 336 

77 BtS, 23 

78 BtS, 205; see "Covert Theology" for more on the short shrift given to 
polytheism by Dennett and Dawkins. 

102 Against the Irreligious Right 

There is, then, no need to consider what the difference between monotheism 
and polytheism might mean to the believer, nor what part that belief plays in 
their involvement in the political process. All that matters to Dennett is that 
it has allowed them to evade the sort of criticism he would like leverage 
against both. Belief in belief allows him to assert explanations of that sort to 
the exclusion of all other possibilities. That takes on a particular 
significance when the subject turns from the historical development of 
religion to the active religious observance of people who can respond to 
direct inquiry concerning their beliefs and motives. 

To that end, there is the paper "Preachers who are not Believers," 79 which 
Dennett co-authored with Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker who 
operates a commercial market research group, LaScola Qualitative 
Research. The paper purports to divulge information from interviews with 
active clergy members who are "closeted nonbelievers," 80 but questions of 
categorization arise almost immediately. Interviewees were solicited to 
discuss "the issues that clergy face when their beliefs are not in synch with 
church teachings," 81 but it is unclear from the paper how Dennett and 
LaScola identified the six chosen interviewees as non-theists. Only five of 
the six interviewed are presented in the paper, as the sixth "had a change of 
heart," and "at her request, all further references to her and quotations from 
her interviews have been removed." 82 Of the four men approached who 
declined to be interviewed, two specifically cited concerns about the term 
"non-believing. Though neither believed in a supernatural god, both 
strongly self-identified as believers." 83 That would seem blatantly 
contradictory, unless the qualifier "supernatural" indicates that it was 
Dennett's criteria for theism, as spelled out in Breaking the Spell, to which 
they objected. "If what they call God," Dennett tells us there, "is really not 
an agent in their eyes, a being that can answer prayers, approve and 
disapprove, receive sacrifices, and mete out punishment or forgiveness, 
then, although they may call this Being God, and stand in awe of it (not 
Him), their creed, whatever it is, is not really a religion according to my 
definition." 84 The possibility that Dennett's definition formed the paradigm 
by which the interviews were judged is made more distinct by the paper's 
analysis of their objection: 

79 Tufts University:2010 

80 "Preachers who are not believers," 1 
si ibid. 2 

ss ibid. 1 

83 ibid. 2 

84 BtS, 10 

The Diagnostics df Belief 103 

But what do they mean by this? Are they perhaps deceiving 
themselves? There is no "way of answering, and this is no accident. 
The ambiguity about who is a believer and "who is a nonbeliever 
follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously 
fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is 
many different things to different people, and since we can't know 
which of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them 
all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the 
question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked 
"whether they believe in God, many people could sincerely say that 
they don't know what they are being asked. 85 

This suggests an unwillingness of Dennett's part to recognize the plurality 
of theologies espoused by the paper's subjects. That further implies the 
supposition on his part of a fixed theological background that can be 
brought to bear as a single, definable criteria. After all, Dennett and LaScola 
claim to have successfully identified five clergy -members who do not 
believe in god; and this despite the insistence of three of the subjects that 
they do, in fact, believe. How could Dennett credibly suggest that they are 
"deceiving themselves" or that their collective protest "shows how 
powerfully the phenomenon of belief in belief 'figures in our lives" 86 unless 
he already has in mind some criteria for determining whether or not the 
"something" they espouse qualifies as a god? The implication seems to be 
that Dennett and LaScola know what their interviewees mean by god even 
better than do the professed theists themselves. But a section entitled "A 
Problem of Definition" does nothing to cast light on the subject, and the 
criteria remains covert. 87 

The accusation can no longer be avoided, that Dennett and Harris have 
both favored their given diagnostics of belief less because they are manifest 
in our experience of belief than because doing so makes possible the sort of 
confrontations with religious belief that Dennet (at least) hopes to stage. By 
his account of the role of viral memetics in the origin of religious belief, 88 
Dennett all but excises the role of individual volition from his inquiry. The 
formula "belief in belief" allows him to further reject from consideration the 
content of religious belief, even as he implicitly reiterates Harris' premises 

85 "Preachers who are not believers, "2 

86 ibid. 3; cf. "The Diagnostics of Belief" for more on Dennett's notion of 
"belief in belief." 

87 To which end, see "Covert Theology." 

88 See "The Flattening of Historical Perspective" and "Covert Theology." 

104 Against the Irreligious Right 

concerning the role of those beliefs in motivating violence. 89 A paper like 
"Preachers who are not believers" depends for its logical argument on 
premises that allow Dennett to assert that validity of his interpretation over 
the claims of the subjects themselves. In answer to anyone who dares 
question his conclusions, he can always simply invoke belief in belief - of 
course they object, since they, also, are out to protect religion from inquiry. 
Any objection is thus surreptitiously converted into a priori evidence that 
the person objecting has an ulterior motive. In the end, the uses to which he 
puts belief in belief serve to draw across his argument just the sort of 
impenetrable veil that he continually harangues the "stewards" of religious 
belief and the "scholarly friends of religion" for having drawn across the 
phenomenon of religion. 


In some regards, Harris' account resembles the attempts of 20 th century 
logical positivists to disqualify entire categories of common language as 
meaningless, on grounds that they could not be satisfactorily parsed in the 
propositional syntax best suited to formal logic. 90 In sum, "we are no more 
free to believe whatever we want about God than we are free to adopt 
unjustified beliefs about science or history, or free to mean whatever we 
want when using words like 'poison' or 'north' or 'zero.'" 91 The statement 
hints at the polemical purpose to which Harris, and to some extent the Four 
Horsemen as a group, bend their analyses of the subject. Their treatment of 
the nature of belief serves as a means of constraining belief. Treating belief 
as through it were assimilable, without any loss of meaning, to the 
propositional attitude allows Harris to argue that it must be, literally by 
nature, logically consistent. 

He has finally drawn close to the heart of his argument when he attempts 
to illustrate the principle that, "We can believe a proposition to be true only 
because something in our experience, or in our reasoning about the world, 
actually speaks to the truth of the proposition in question." 92 The question 
of why a theist believes in God "invites - indeed, demands - an answer of 
the form 'I believe that God exists because...'" Harris couples that with the 

89 Cf. e.g. his discussion of the destruction of the World Trade Center: BtS, 

90 The classical statement of logical positivism in this respect is A. J. Ayer's 
Language, Truth and Logic (Gollancz, 1936). 

91 TEoF, 51 

92 TEoF, 62 

The Diagnostics df Belief 105 

premises described above to insist that a belief be grounded in an objective 
state of the world; to insist, in other words, that the belief aims at 
"representing our knowledge." By insisting the central concern of any given 
belief is its correspondence to "some state of the world," he implies that all 
belief aspires to the status of knowledge. The philosophical context of that 
scheme is Plato's second analysis, that knowledge is true belief, an analysis 
that Plato ultimately presents Socrates as having rejected. 93 Harris not only 
revives the correlation, but subjects it to an implicit teleology. The causal 
aspect of such explanation, "explains the value we place on evidence," on 
Harris' view, "because evidence is simply an account of the causal linkage 
between states of the world and our beliefs about them." 

Harris' willingness to glide past the complications and to overlook the 
contradictions of his own account give reason to suppose that he has 
affirmed the propositions stated in "The Nature of Belief" less for their 
connection to some observable "state of the world," than because their 
acceptance seems to logically compel a particular "propositional attitude" 
towards religion. In brief, "religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way to 
world is, must be as evidentiary in spirit as any other." In order to wring 
from that attitude the program of action he recommends, he must insist that 
those other beliefs are, after all, uniformly evidentiary in spirit - or, at least, 
that belief, as the affirmation of a proposition, intrinsically aspires towards 
knowledge. The alternative account of belief given above suggests 
otherwise. In principle, Harris' claim that human reason ultimately cannot 
be divorced from the objective behavior of the world may seem accessible, 
but given the vague form in which he presents it, practical applications 
prove out of the question. It seems meant only to assert, without 
demonstration, that some beliefs are, after all, objectively justified, even if 
we have no way of objectively verifying them. Indeed, the notion that 
certain forms of belief are impermissible may be taken as the principle 
theme of The End of Faith, as when Harris confides that his "goal in writing 
this book has been to help close the door on a certain style of 
irrationality." 94 To the degree that all four would endorse something like 
Harris' emphasis on the transcendent value of the logical, it is no surprise 
that all Four Horsemen are inclined to mobilize at the least suggestion of 
such relativism. 95 

Moreover, the suggestion that belief circumvents human autonomy by 
virtue of its direct and automatic causal relationship to behavior is 

93 Theaetetus, 

94 TEoF, 223; cf. also "The Irreligious Right" for some of the practical means 
by which Harris and company propose to do so. 

95 See "Landscapes and Zeitgeists" for more on that theme. 

106 Against the Irreligious Right 

characteristic of the use to which Harris puts his diagnosis. "The link 
between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably," he writes, and 
raising the stakes seems to have been very much the point. "Certain 
beliefs," he argues, 

place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of 
persuasion, "while inspiring them to commit act of extraordinary 
violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If 
they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant 
people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. 

Put more bluntly, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be 
ethical to kill people for believing them." 96 

In a document entitled "Response to Controversy," 97 Harris laments that, 
"Some critics have interpreted [that statement] to mean that I advocate 
simply killing religious people for their beliefs. Granted, I made the job of 
misinterpreting me easier than it might have been, but such a reading 
remains a frank distortion of my views." Be that as it may, he does not 
swerve from the premises that seem to entail that conclusion. "The fact that 
belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous," he 

When one asks "why it "would be ethical to drop a bomb on Osama 
bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri, the answer cannot be, "because 
they have killed so many people in the past.' These men haven't, to 
my knowledge, killed anyone personally. However, they are likely to 
get a lot of innocent people killed because of what they and their 
followers believe about jihad, martyrdom, the ascendancy of Islam, 

Note the distinction between "killing someone personally" and "getting 
someone killed." Harris writes as though, in the absence of dangerous 
beliefs, the fact of their not having killed anyone directly would be decisive, 
but the third sentence contradicts that implication - as, for that matter, does 
Harris' stated opposition to the death penally. In the end, he does not 
attempt to justify killing bin Laden or Al Zawahiri on grounds that they 

96 TEoF, 52-53 

97 http://www.samharris.orq/site/full text/response-to-controversy2/ Version 
1.8 (August 11,2008) 

The Diagnostics df Belief ioy 

already have gotten people killed, but rather that their beliefs likely will get 
people killed. 

The simplest test of that rationale is to consider a scenario in which the 
prospective targets' beliefs were unknown. Imagine a rogue general who 
has, on several occasions and at regular intervals, ordered his army to kill 
civilians, but who has professed no beliefs that might explain his motives 
for doing so. With the present interval rapidly drawing to a close would 
Harris reserve judgment on the ethics of killing our hypothetical general 
until some assessment of the general's belief can be made? Or would past 
behavior suffice to justify a pre-emptive strike against him? Most would 
consider the pattern of behavior sufficient cause, and despite his arguments 
with respect to bin Laden and al Zawahiri, I think it likely that Harris would 
agree. He might, if he hoped to preserve the status of belief, argue that, in 
light of that pattern, we would be justified in assuming the existence of 
some belief sufficiently pernicious to inspire the massacres, but that seems 
to me both unnecessary and question begging. The pattern itself is sufficient 
to justify intervention, and the nature of the crime may be called upon to 
determine what degree of force, if any, is ethical. 

What, then, is added when we point to the profession of belief? If it is 
ethical to drop bombs on bin Laden and Al Zawahiri, the justification 
should be that they have already established a pattern of complicity in the 
murder of innocents. Without that circumstance, what they profess to 
believe "about jihad, martyrdom, the ascendancy of Islam, etc." should be 
immaterial. Harris points to the role the pattern of the behavior plays in the 
judgment, but either fails or simply refuses to recognize its importance. 

The reason, it seems, lies in his prior commitment to the idea that we 
automatically "become behaviorally susceptible" to the content of our 
beliefs. Harris may not have deliberately advocated "simply killing 
religious people for their beliefs," but he has, nevertheless, drawn a direct 
line from the proposition that "beliefs are principles of action" to a full 
justification for a literal war of ideas. By insisting on the irrelevance of bin 
Laden and al Zawahiri's prior involvement in terrorism, he even provides 
some justification for waging such wars preemptively. If our beliefs render 
us behaviorally susceptible, and if the process is automatic, then is the 
killing others for their beliefs not the necessary and inevitable effect of 
believing what Harris has written about belief? There are, I think, solid 
experiential reasons for supposing that belief does not, after all, function the 
way he supposes, but a reader who seriously commits to his account will 
not be likely to see them. And if you are willing to concede that it may be 
ethical to kill someone for their beliefs, how much more permissible is it to 
legislate against certain kinds of belief? Orwell coined a term for that sort of 
thing: thoughtcrime . He seems not to have thought very highly of it. 

108 Against the Irreligious Right 

"Why," Harris asks, "would someone as conspicuously devoid of 
personal grievances or psychological dysfunction as Osama bin Laden - 
who is neither poor, uneducated, delusional, nor a prior victim of Western 
aggression - devote himself to cave -dwelling machinations with the 
intention of killing innumerable men, women, and children he has never 
met?" 98 That presumes a great deal about bin Laden, without the benefit of 
ever having actually come into contact with the man, but Harris 
nevertheless calls the answer "obvious" - always a red flag. To call an 
explanation "obvious" means little more than that it requires no scrutiny; for 
that reason, it is often a cover for precisely those explanations that cannot 
stand up to scrutiny. "The answer," he tells us, 

is that men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe. 
They believe in the literal truth of the Koran. Why did nineteen "well- 
educated, middle -class men trade their lives in this "world for the 
privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they 
believed that they "would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare 
to find the behavior of human beings so fully and satisfactorily 
explained. Why have we been reluctant to accept this explanation? 

The best answer to the latter question, I would suggest, is that we are not 
convinced of the diagnostic account of belief he provides. 

And yet, some might be inclined to take a permissive view of Harris' 
account, telling ourselves that, insofar as he only applies it only to figures 
from the radical fringe of religious extremism, it has little to do with the rest 
of us. As it happens, Harris has an answer for that as well, and it takes little 
cognitive effort to use his arguments to connect the radicalism of an Osama 
bin Laden to the more common religious observance of our friends and 
neighbors. To illustrate, he writes: 

Consider the following claim: Starbucks does not sellplutonium. I suspect 
that most of us "would be willing to wager a fair amount of money 
that this statement is generally true — which is to say that we believe it. 
However, before reading this statement, you are very unlikely to have 
considered the prospect that the "world's most popular coffee chain 
might also trade in one of the "world's most dangerous substances. 
Therefore, it does not seem possible for there have been a structure 
in your brain that already corresponded to that belief. And yet you 

TEoF, 28-29 

The Diagnostics df Belief log 

clearly harbored some representation of the "world that amounts to this 

That argument contains two highly questionable premises that render it 
altogether dubious. The first is that it would be reasonable to regard belief 
as the mere potential for affirming a proposition. To make it clear why that 
premise should be regarded skeptically, it need only be asked whether you 
believed anything at all about the Starbucks' relationship to the plutonium 
market prior to have reading Harris' sentence. In all likelihood, the answer 
is no. 

To cover against that skepticism, Harris introduces the second premise: 
that the potential for belief in a given proposition amounts to actual belief in 
that proposition. In saying so, he again insists that belief functions 
according to the same sort of entailment demanded by propositional logic. 
Again, experience shows that this simply is not the case. Because the 
structure of logical argument means that certain sets of propositions will, as 
a matter of logical necessity, entail certain conclusions, we are typically 
justified in treating the statement of those propositions as thought they 
amounted to the conclusions that follow from them. That is clearest in the 
pure grammar of mathematics, where it is virtually impossible to treat the 
phrase "the sum of two and two" as numerically distinct from the number 
four. But belief does not always - nor is it clear that it should always - 
adhere to the structure of propositional logic, much less mathematics. Our 
beliefs often stop short of entailing further beliefs, even when the beliefs we 
actually hold would, if presented as premises in a propositional argument, 
logically entail those second-order beliefs. The End of Faith suggests that 
the indeterminacy of those first-order beliefs represent a failure of our 
humanity, but there is no reason to take that standard as normative. Apart 
from his commitment to the ideology of Rationalism, what reason does 
Harris have for supposing that the human faculty for holding and dealing 
with belief is primarily evaluative, rather than creative? Certainly not 
observation of actual human behavior with respect to their beliefs. 

The confusion in his formulation can be traced back to two distinct 
conceptions of belief that Harris uses as though they were interchangeable. 
The conception I called first-order in the preceding paragraph are beliefs as 
we actually find them in the mind. "Second-order beliefs," as I termed 
them, are beliefs only in the paradoxical sense that, though they may be 
implied when we translate first-order beliefs into propositional language - 
as a conclusion is implied by its premises - they are not actually held as 
beliefs. They exist not in the mind, but in the realm of the hypothetical. It 

99 TML, 117 

HO Against the Irreligious Right 

cuts through that confusion to say that so-called second-order beliefs are not 
really beliefs at all, and for the simple reason that they are not actively 
believed by the person holding the beliefs that would, once translated into 
propositional language, entail them. They are, at the very most, potential 
beliefs, though it is possible that they will never be realized in the mind. 

Nevertheless, Harris insists that belief may be reasonably treated as the 
mere "disposition to accept a proposition as true (or likely to be)." 100 That 
logic can be readily turned against him, as I did when I suggested that his 
account of the mechanical nature of belief seems to obligate him to kill 
anyone with potentially dangerous beliefs. His suggestion that second-order 
beliefs could be treated as tantamount to first-order beliefs dangerously 
extends that principle. Unsurprisingly, Harris's "Response to Controversy" 
resists that obligation, but it seems likely that his insistence on the status of 
second-order belief was motivated by the desire to obligate others to just 
that sort of consequence. By insisting that belief describes not only the 
association of ideas that a person actually makes, but also the associations 
that would necessarily arise were they to treat those beliefs as logical 
propositions, Harris makes it possible to treat a person as though they 
affirmed propositions that they might, in fact, never affirm. In effect, he is 
arguing for the authority to dictate to others what they believe in effect, even 
in direct contradiction to what they profess. 

In the project to construct a diagnostic of belief that is, by virtue of its 
very structure, hostile to religion - a project one might suppose Harris has 
amplified in his neurological research 101 - this represents the final stand. 
Acceptance of Harris' account allows the polemicist to attribute 
fundamentalist beliefs to even moderate religious observers, and to treat all 
religious belief as though it were equivalent to latent violence, only waiting 
to manifest. It thus becomes possible to construe all religious believers as 
embryonic bin Ladens, destined to emerge as fully formed extremists. I see 
no way around the conclusion that the Four Horsemen took up the topic of 
belief precisely for the purpose of identifying the worst behavior of 
religious extremists with the most innocuous religious beliefs of the rest of 
the population. It is to that end that the diagnostics of belief considered in 
this essay have, in every case, insisted upon the uniformity of religious 
belief. Ultimately, there can be no better demonstration of the weaknesses 
of that critique than the torturous distortions to which they have had to 
subject the concept of belief in order to achieve it. 

100 TML, 118 

101 Cp. e.g. the conclusions drawn in "Functional nueroimaging of belief, 
disbelief and uncertainty," Harris, Sheth and Cohen, Annals of Neurology, 63 
(2), 141-147, to Harris' interpretation of those findings in TML, esp. Ch. 3. 

The Taxonomy of Religion 

None of the Four Horsemen provide a clear-cut definition of religion. 
The difficulty involved in doing so may explain why they have, on the 
whole, preferred to level their critiques against metonyms, like faith, 
theism, or "belief in belief." What they have offered instead may be 
described as a series of gestures, circumscribing the subject without 
providing a defensible criteria for identifying religion per se. Rhetorically, 
that method has the advantage of allowing the critic to shift the ground 
beneath the discussion. Phenomena that most of us would recognize as 
religious are thus exonerated from criticism, while phenomena with no 
intrinsic claim to religious status are included, lending their guilt to religion 
by dubious association. 

Consider the case of Buddhism. In a footnote, Harris argues that, "While 
Buddhism has also been a source of ignorance and occasional violence, it is 
not a religion of faith, or a religion at all, in the Western sense. There are 
millions of Buddhists who do not seem to know this, and they can be found 
in temples throughout Southeast Asia, and even in the West, praying to 
Buddha as though he were the numinous incarnation of Santa Claus." 1 So 
much the better for Harris, who practices Buddhism and advocates for 
Buddhist practices in the last chapter of The End of Faith. If what 
distinguishes Harris' Buddhism is that he does not regard the Buddha as 
comparable to "the numinous incarnation of Santa Claus," that comparison 
would seem to put Harris in accord with Dawkins in viewing theism as the 
"factual premise of religion." Some discussion of what distinguishes "the 
Western sense" of religion might have shed more light on the subject, but 
Harris goes no further than to suggest that there are two senses of the term, 
one less damnable than the other, without giving definition to either. That is 

1 TEoF, 293 fn. 12 


112 Against the Irreligious Right 

certainly no more surprising than that there are millions of Southeast Asians 
who have yet to be informed that they are practicing religion "in the 
Western sense" and have even managed to export it back to the West. 

Though the notion of a fundamental division between Occidental and 
Oriental religions has been around at least since the 1 9 th German scholars of 
religion, Harris' proof is so awkward that the reader may be forgiven for 
wondering whether he has, in the end, condemned a club that has him a 
member. Hitchens proves charitable enough to pay lip service to the 
exoneration of Buddhism. "It can be argued," he writes, "that Buddhism is 
not, in our sense of the word, a 'religion' at all." 2 But perhaps he is after all 
only echoing the polite formula rehearsed by Dawkins 3 and faintly echoed 
by Dennett, 4 since the rest of his chapter takes the example of Buddhist 
violence as indicative of religion in general. That variance does little to 
inspire confidence in any definition that would exclude Buddhism from the 
religious category on a priori grounds. 

At the other end of the spectrum stands modern totalitarianism. Here 
Harris and Hitchens are less at odds, as both regard the totalitarianisms of 
the 20 th century as virtual religions. Yet without some explicit criteria for 
distinguishing religion from strictly political phenomena, well-constructed 
rhetoric can convert nearly any political movement into a religious one. 
Stanley Fish, a literary theorist and legal scholar, has shown the opposite 
side of that trend by remarking on "the religion of letting it all hang out, the 
religion we call liberalism." 5 Coincidentally, he made that reference in the 
course of talking about the controversy brewed by the Danish newspaper 
Jyllands-Posten's decision to print 40 cartoons depicting the Prophet 
Mohammad; based on their response, the Four Horsemen would no doubt 
fit Fish' description of practitioners of the religion of liberalism. 

Both Fish and the Horsemen, characterized political stances as religious 
in order to weaken their standing. Fish proposes to put liberal dismissals of 
Muslim outrage into context, while Harris and Hitchens propose to 
reclassify negative examples of secularist/atheist societies to suit their own 
arguments. The conversion is possible because politics deals with the 
consequences of beliefs that are, as Dennett suggests, incommensurable. 
The first question behind any given political stance is not, "What are the 
facts?" but rather, "What issues do we regard most critical?" That the 
factual inquiry will almost always be preceded, and indeed guided, by the 
adoption of a faith, so to speak, seems to put politics in much the same 

2 G/A/G, 199 

3 TGD, 59 

4 BtS, 8 

5 "Our Faith in Letting It All Hang Out," New York Times, February 12, 2006. 

The Taxonomy of Religion ng 

territory as religion. The Four Horsemen are not above that priority. 6 So 
long as there are no proper boundaries by which to distinguish religion from 
politics, they remain open to charges of have contributed to their own 
political religion. 

For context, allow me to quote from Kingsley Martin's study of the 
reactions to France's ancien regime, the historical background to the 
Rationalist traditions adopted by the New Atheists: 7 

The old creed, "which had been dominant under Louis XIV, "was a 
lost cause at the fall of the Bastille; and the new creed, "which had 
been shaping itself piecemeal in the minds of scientists and men of 
letters in the seventeenth century, had become a religion to the 
deputies "who met in the States-General. For these revolutionary 
doctrines in their final form served all the purposes of a religion. 
Liberty, Equality and Fraternity "were the new watchwords which 
embodied an ancient and continuous social ideal — a community of 
equal and free citizens, conscious of a common heritage and a 
common goal. At the Revolution this vision seemed closer to 
realization than it has at any other moment of history; men believed 
that they "were in fact equal, and needed only to cast off their chains 
and to proclaim their common brotherhood. Their faith "was upheld 
by a new metaphysic, an ethic, a series of dogmas and a means of 
grace. Science had substituted a natural for a supernatural explanation 
of the universe: knowledge, not obedience, was the gate of salvation; 
the key was held by men of science, the true priesthood, less 
exclusive intermediaries between man and the hidden mysteries of 
nature. Finally the doctrine of progress transformed the "whole from 
a philosophy into a working faith: men could believe in the ultimate 
success of the causes for which they "worked, since there "were natural 
and historical forces greater than themselves "working with them. 

Like that of the ancien regime before it, that creed had a life span of its 
own, and Kingsley tells us that in the twentieth century, "its fundamental 
assumptions were shaken," and that "new knowledge and bewildering 

6 See "The Irreligious Right." 

7 French Liberal Thought in the Eighteenth Century: A Study of Political 
Ideas from Bayle to Condorcet, (Ernest Benn Ltd: 1929), 2-3. Quotations are 
from a revised edition (Harper Torchbooks: 1963). See "The Heirs of La 
Coterie Holbachique" for a fuller description of that adoption. 

114 Against the Irreligious Right 

experience have once more brought disillusion, scepticism and a paralysing 
sense of impotence." 

In calling that new creed a religion in its own right, Kingsley merely 
picks up some heavy-handed themes from French liberal thought itself. 
Several episodes suggest that the 18 th century advocates expected their 
ideology not only to displace the religion of the ancien regime, but also to 
serve as a religion in its own right. Carl Becker, for example, tells us of the 
ransacking of the Notre Dame cathedral by the Cult of Reason, an atheistic 
substitute for Catholicism which was itself replaced by decree with 
Robespierre's deistic Cult of the Supreme Being. 8 But there is little reason 
to interpret the French revolutionaries' use of the term religion (nor that of 
Kingsley and Becker in following them) as diagnostic. They seem to have 
been less concerned with a universal definition of the phenomenon of 
religion than in providing a substitute for the role played by religion in 
propping up the ancien regime. The triumvirate of Liberty, Equality and 
Fraternity; the Cult of Reason; the Cult of the Supreme Being: these may 
have been creeds dressed in the trappings of religion in order to serve the 
function that religion had played prior to the Revolution, but that does not 
mean that they would pass as religion in another time or place. 

I press that point in order to deflate the argument, made too often by their 
critics, that the Four Horseman have only put forward their own religion, 
and that their argument against religion in general is, therefore, either 
undermined by a fatal self-contradiction, or knowingly duplicitous. No such 
argument should be accepted on the basis of superficial resemblance alone. 
To say, for example, that the ideology of 18 th century liberal atheism and 
deism should be classed a religion because it played the same role that 
Catholicism has previously filled is as fallacious at to say that, because 
religion has sometimes been the cause of war, all precipitate causes of war 
should likewise be thought of as religious. Rather, the process of defining 
religion, with as little bias as possible, should precede the act of declaring 
New Atheism a member of the family. That order of events proves 
particularly crucial when the point is to use categorization as a tool of 

Unfortunately for their arguments, the New Atheists opened themselves 
up to such comparisons by insisting on the validity of that strategy. 
"Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao," 
writes Harris: "although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, 
communism was little more than a political religion." 9 Hitchens makes 
much the same point in God Is Not Great, writing that, "Communist 

8 The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century, Carl Becker (1932). 

9 TEoF, 79 

The Taxonomy of Religion 2i5 

absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well 
understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace 
it." 10 In doing so, he suggests, they have restored the essential nature of 
religion in secular guise. Why, we might ask, could the same not be said of 
the New Atheists? The suggestion that they have simply repackaged religion 
becomes all the more credible when they are seen in light of the historical 
background from which they emerged. After all, the New Atheism has, by 
and large, repackaged the previously radical religious critique of the French 
Materialists and their philosophical brethren. If those ideological ancestors 
thought of themselves as replacing religion, by means precisely analogous 
to those Hitchens finds among the Communist absolutists, then should we 
not expect to discover in the New Atheists the survival of the Cult of 

But, again, that line of reasoning inverts the proper order. Should we 
follow it to the end, we might find that we have backed into a definition of 
religion that makes irreligion and atheism conceptually impossible. Religion 
comes to mean any ideology that ties together belief, or the social order, and 
thus irreligion and atheism prove to be nothing more than species of 
religion. That may satisfy certain religious apologists who find it more 
agreeable to deny the very existence of irreligion, rather than acknowledge 
the existence of anything that might contradict their convictions, but surely 
even most apologists will agree that there are good reasons to want to 
preserve at least the possibility of rejecting theism and religion. At any rate, 
we cannot take the arguments of the Four Horsemen seriously if we do not 
accept at least the possibility of their unbelief and their irreligion. 

The two examples given above, those of Buddhism and totalitarianism, 
indicate two criteria for determining the suitability of a definition. One is 
applicability - does the definition identify everything that we recognize as 
belonging to that category? The other is integrity - is the definition precise 
enough to preclude being stretched to the point of meaninglessness? A 
definition that would allow us to talk of the Democratic Party as a religion 
would lack integrity. One that excluded Rabbinic Judaism would be 
inapplicable. There are, of course, reasons for preferring definitions that 
lack for one criteria or the other, but that lack serve only to draw into 
question the motives for preferring them. 

Dennett provides the closest to an explicitly stated definition of religion 
that the reader of the Four Horsemen can expect to get. "Tentatively," he 
cautions, "I propose to define religions as social systems whose participants 
avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be 

10 GING, 246 

116 Against the Irreligious Right 

sought." 11 Yet he is quick to frame that as a tentative definition, subject to 
revision. Breaking the Spell never finds time to revisit it overtly, but certain 
rhetorical maneuvers that follow might logically entail its modification. I 
intend to make the case that Dennett relies more on an evolutionary 
description of religion, but since it proves, after all, to be the only definition 
on offer, it warrants further scrutiny. The statement can be divided into a 
number of clauses, identifying religion as (1) a social system consisting of 
(2) participants who (3) avow belief, specifically in (4) an agents or agents, 
the primary characteristic of whom is (5) that their approval is to be sought. 

At the outset it may be noted that the second and third clauses put 
Dennett at some variance, both with his fellow Horsemen and, at times, 
with himself. That is because his account technically omits belief as an 
identifier of religion in favor of "participants" and "avowals." A dead 
religion - that is, a religion which was no longer avowed - would, taking 
Dennett's criteria literally, no longer be a religion at all. Most, I expect, 
would shrink from that conclusion; a religion that exists only in the 
historical record remains a religion, as far as most of us are concerned. As 
such, most people regard a religion, properly speaking, as the body of 
beliefs associated with a given tradition, and deem the question of whether 
or not anyone continues to avow those beliefs immaterial. 

That certainly proves true in the case of the other Horsemen. Harris is 
particularly vocal in insisting that any avowed participants who do not 
actually believe in the explicit tenets of the creed are not actually religious. 
If we wished to drive a wedge between Dennett and Harris, we might 
conjure up the image of the perfect Crypto- Jew. Given a person who 
secretly believes the tenets of Judaism while publicly avowing the tenets of 
Islam, to which religion would we say she belongs? Given Dennett's 
definition, and assuming that our hypothetical subject keeps their Jewish 
beliefs perfectly secret, she would be a Muslim. Given Harris' less 
explicitly stated criteria, she would be a Jew. For what it is worth, she 
would, I suspect, consider herself a Jew, but would never openly identify 
herself as such. The extent to which Dennett is willing to advocate for his 
side of the dispute becomes clear in some of the research he has published 
since Breaking the Spell. n 

Related problems arise with the first clause of his definition, that religions 
are social systems. How, for example, would Dennett characterize one of 
the subjects of Gershom Scholem's "Religious Authority and Mysticism"? 13 

11 BtS, 9 

i 2 See "The Diagnostics of Belief" and "A Drawing of Lines" for discussion of 

Dennett and LaScola's "Preachers who are not Believers." 

13 Reprinted in On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (Schocken:1965) 

The Taxonomy of Religion hj 

In that essay, Scholem examines the process where by the well-known 
figure of the religious mystic develops their mystical vision in response to 
the credal formulas of recognized religious authorities. While the 
pronouncements of the mystic may go on to form the basis for a new 
religious society - as in the case of one of Scholem 's favorite topics, Isaac 
Luria - "Religious Authority and Mysticism" concerns itself with the 
mystic precisely at the moment in which they have detached themselves 
from the prevailing religious society. Does that mystic belong to a religion? 
Dennett's criteria suggests that she would not. There can be no religion until 
someone else professes the mystic's belief alongside her, just as there can be 
no chorus until someone accompanies the soloist. But what, then, has the 
mystic created? Whatever name we attach to it, we must regard it as purer 
than the religion of Dennett's account. 

It is not always clear whether or not the other Horsemen would endorse 
that criteria. Hitchens, for example, argues that, "it can be stated as a truth 
that religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own 
marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere in the 
lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths." 14 That seems 
to suggest an inherent draw towards organization or, more to the point, 
social control. But because it presents the matter as a temptation inherent to 
religion, that premise at least leaves open the possibility that religion can 
be, in its earliest stages, solitary. While Harris' argument "is aimed at the 
majority of the faithful in every religious tradition," he leaves open the 
possibility that theologian Paul Tillich might constitute a "blameless parish 
of one." 15 Perhaps that puts Harris across the table from Dennett, or maybe 
it is only a rhetorical flourish meant to gracefully dismiss Tillich. It bears 
some resemblance to Dawkins' aside marking Bishop John Shelby Spong as 
"a nice example of a liberal bishop whose beliefs are so advanced as to be 
almost unrecognizable to the majority of those who call themselves 
Christians." 16 In both cases, variance to the majority view serves as a 
pretext for ignoring a theologian to whom neither author seems to object 
very much. Dennett's "social system" clause might thus appeal to them, but 
neither goes so far as to disqualify Tillich and Spong from the religious 
category on those grounds. 

Then there is the matter of Dennett's "agent or agents." He clarifies by 
writing, "This is, of course, a circuitous way of articulating the idea that a 

14 G/A/G, 17 

15 TEoF, 65 

16 TGD, 269 

118 Against the Irreligious Right 

religion without God or gods is like a vertebrate without a backbone." 17 
This raises the question of applicability, since there have been traditions that 
satisfy the earlier clauses, and historically have been regarded as religions, 
but which would fail to qualify under this clause. Among them are Samkhya 
Hinduism, perhaps Jainism, some schools of Buddhism, a small sect of 
atheist Christians, and so on. Dennett's criteria would exclude them all, but 
more significantly his fifth clause threatens to further exclude large swaths 
of more or less orthodox religious groups. He clarifies, "If what they call 
God is really not an agent in their eyes, a being that can answer prayers, 
approve and disapprove , receive sacrifices, and mete out punishment or 
forgiveness, then although they may call this Being God, and stand in awe 
of it (not Him), their creed, whatever it is, is not really a religion according 
to my definition." 18 Strict Taoism is out, then; as are some forms of 
Hinduism, modern theological versions of Christianity, and certain Jewish 
and Muslim mysticisms. Religion's like Voudon come to inhabit a strange 
liminal space, since what they regard as God would be excluded, though the 
Iwa, which are subordinate to God, would again mark the tradition as 
religious in nature. Some ancient (or, as Dennett prefers, "folk") religions 
would presumably fail to meet his criteria, since the agents tend to be only 
tangentially related to religious practice, if at all. Significantly, pantheism 
and deism would be left out of account, despite both positing divinities. In 
the end, it can be difficult to calculate what remains of the groups that most 
of us would recognize as religious: certainly evangelical Christianity, 
orthodox Judaism and most mainline Islam, but what beyond that is difficult 
to guess. Those clauses also raise the question of his definition's integrity. 
Does, for example, a gambler who regularly invokes the favor of Lady Luck 
necessarily belong to a religion? What about a paranoiac who purports to 
see the working of "the Man" in every bad turn of events? 

What Dennett has achieved by those last two clauses amounts to the 
rationalization of a bias that his fellow Horsemen have adopted more or less 
by default. They have, on the whole, preferred to focus on the Abrahamic 
traditions, and specifically on the most culturally conservative and rigidly 
doctrinaire sects. One pragmatic reason that they nearly all avow is 
familiarity: except for Harris' experience with Buddhism, they all claim 
much more experience with Abrahamic religion. Only Hitchens breaks with 
that constraint to any significant degree, specifically in the chapter entitled 
"The Is No 'Eastern' Solution." But their reasons also tend toward the 
programmatic, by which I mean that it sometimes serves their rhetorical 

17 BtS, op cit.; it was, in large part, taxonomic analogies like this that inspired 
the title of this essay. 

18 BtS, 10 

The Taxonomy of Religion lig 

purposes to scrupulously exclude certain religious traditions. To that end, 
Harris excludes Buddhism to bolster his own atheist bona fides, and 
Dawkins excludes pantheism, deism and "Einsteinian religion" in order to 
maintain the bona fides of others, even in the face of their own religious 
avowals. 19 If we take the plain definition of theism as "belief in God or 
gods," and if we also follow Dawkins in seeing theism as "the factual 
premise of religion," 20 then deism and pantheism are clearly religious, or at 
least proto-religious, forms. The only way to evade that conclusion is to 
wrest control of the meaning of the word "god" from those who actually 
believe in gods, but in doing so the polemical atheists falsify their own 
attempts to circumscribe religion as a phenomenon. 21 

As a consequence of his insistence on a particular form of agency, it is not 
always clear what Dennett means when he uses a seemingly straightforward 
term like "Christian religion." Does he mean only the Christians who 
unambiguously avow belief in an suitably immanent and personal God? If 
so, then how can the moderates who believe in God as a non-personal fount 
of being be held responsible, as Dennett argues they should, 22 for the 
behavior of those who are, on his account, genuinely religious? Such 
complications do not detain him, though he admits their potential to arise as 
a consequence of his definition. Or rather, he asserts that, "In order to get 
clear about what religions are, we will have to allow that some religions 
may have to be turned into things that aren't religions any more." 23 Rarely 
are any of the Horsemen so transparent in indicating their discursive method 
than Dennett is when he talks of turning religions "into things that aren't 
religions any more." Nixon pulled off a similar maneuver when he claimed, 
in effect, that in order to get clear about what his criminal record is, we will 
have to allow that some crimes may be turned into things that aren't crimes 
any more. 


Having drafted a definition (albeit a provisional and troublesome one) 
Dennett goes on to make very little use of it. More often, he treats and 
identifies religions much as the other Horsemen, who have not provided 
explicit definitions, treat and identify them. His historical distinction 

19 See "A Drawing of Lines" for examples. 

20 TGD, 189 

21 The essay "Covert Theology" continues this theme. 

22 See "The Irreligious Right" for elaboration. 
23 6fS, 10 

120 Against the Irreligious Right 

between folk and organized religions arises not from his definition, but 
rather as the result of a speculative account of the development of religion. 
On that account, folk religions arise first of all as the result of misfirings in 
the cognitive apparatus humans have evolved for interacting with the world. 
Eventually, a priestly class arises and claims for itself the role of steward, 
shaping and protecting the avowals originally formed in the crucible of folk 
religion until they become the doctrines of an organized religion. That 
progression represents a tangible break in Dennett's account, from what 
could be regarded as the mitochondrial phase of religion to the form in 
which we more commonly encounter it. It is sometimes unclear whether or 
not the folk traditions that he presents as the germ of organized religion 
would really qualify as religion according to his own definition. Since, for 
example, their status as folk traditions usually precludes any definite 
historical record, how can he be sure that avowal of belief in properly 
supernatural agents played a part? At best, he must extrapolate from the 
centrality of theism in modern organized religion, but that begs the 

This suggests the scope of certain problems of identification that arise 
when we rely on the evolutionary account preferred by Dawkins and 
Dennett. Evolutionary explanation, especially as practiced by the school of 
biological thought represented by Dawkins, is statistical. Even the criteria 
that Dawkins' provided in The Selfish Gene for identifying the basic unit of 
evolution, the gene, does so by calculating averages. A gene is a gene by 
virtue of its survival over multiple replications. That is to say, we can only 
identify a discrete gene by recognizing identical patterns in the gene- 
bearer's ancestors or progeny over a number of generations. A gene is 
nothing in itself, and only takes on meaning and substance as part of a 
statistical persistence. When gauging "the meme's-eye view" espoused by 
Dawkins and especially by Dennett, it is important to remember that the 
meme is defined by analogy to Dawkins' method of defining the gene. In 
that light it suddenly becomes clear why Dennett's definition must insist on 
the social character of religion. His argument is cut adrift without it, since a 
meme takes on substance only over successive iterations, or replications as 
he would have it. Since there can be no meme without either progeny or 
ancestors, nor can he allow that there are any solitary religious believers. 

Along with a certain amount of dubious explanatory power, the memetic 
explanations inherit from the gene certain liabilities. Those liabilities 
become especially clear in Dennett's extended account of the origins and 
development of religion. The essential point to bear in mind is that memetic 
explanation puts a premium on the survival of the things it seeks to explain. 
That proves significantly less worrisome in the case of biological 
functionalism, where, we are told, genetic mutations happen "not once in a 

The Taxonomy of Religion 121 

trillion copyings." 24 When those mutations fail to overcome environmental 
pressures - when, that is, they significantly impede, or simply fail to 
differentially promote, the survival and reproduction of the gene-bearer - 
natural selection quickly expunges them from the gene pool. The swiftest of 
those extinctions would fail Dawkins' selfish gene test. By failing to persist 
over multiple generations, they hardly earn the name gene. It matters little 
what they are if not genes; the point is only that the biologist need not 
devote much thought to them, since the field of genetics concerns itself 
almost exclusively with statistically significant strains. 

Memes are, likewise, defined by the fidelity of their transmission, or at 
least by the capacity for fidelity. In truth, the "substrates" on which memes 
are transmitted lend themselves to a great deal more variability than the 
organic, physical substrate to which the gene is limited. As a consequence, 
most memes mutate at a much higher rate than "once in a trillion copyings." 
The ease with which they can slip into variation may be illustrated by 
simple word of mouth, but such mutations need hardly be accidental. 

The point is this: Precisely because genetic mutations are so rare, not 
much is lost by excluding from consideration those that never quite make it 
as genes in their own right. On the whole, evolutionary theory concerns 
itself very little with the isolated example. Its interest lies with the trend 
rather than the individual. But the inquiry into religious belief cannot help 
but direct us back to the individual, and indeed, both Dawkins and Dennett 
show themselves to be interested in the individual's profession of belief. 
Such inquiries cannot afford to exclude the isolated example, as memetic 
theory does almost of necessity. Practices and belief that might otherwise 
qualify as religious fall out of view because they are not particularly "fit," 
in the parlance of evolutionary explanation. 

When we approach the history of religion from a perspective that values 
individual instances as highly as it does statistics, it becomes clear that the 
anomalies can have as much force as the trends. While the carefully 
managed orthodoxy of the medieval Catholic church was effective in 
preserving certain doctrines (or, if you like, memes) over the span of 
centuries, it did so only by applying persistent pressure against the continual 
emergence of heterodox beliefs and practices. Such heterodoxy did not 
cease to affect the lives of believers, nor the direction of history, simply 
because much of it died upon the vine. And because variation occurs at a 
much higher rate in culture than it does in biology, some features tend to 
pop up again and again, without the sort of direct transmission indicated by 
the term "replication." Those features recur not because they are "Good 
Tricks," but because the human mind permits variations that natural 

24 BtS, 120 

222 Against the Irreligious Right 

selection, operating over generations, would not. Memetic theory can do 
little with religious features that do not persist over generations, but that 
does not necessarily disqualify them from the category of religion. 

In light of those criticisms, it may be better to say that, rather than 
accurately describing or defining religion, the account given by Dennett 
(and to a lesser extent, Dawkins), provides a taxonomy of certain religious 
features. It can, perhaps, help explain why certain traditions fare better than 
others; how (to provide a quite obvious example) certain restricted forms of 
celibacy can persist even though the strict celibacy of all adherents would 
constitute a severe obstacle to the long-term viability of a religion. That 
taxonomic procedure proves less capable of dealing with the lone religious 
believer who takes on strict celibacy as a private religious commitment. 
Such limitations prove critical, and justify taking Dennett's claims for the 
meme's-eye view with a heavy dose of salt. Ultimately, his inquiry may 
have more polemical than explanatory value. "Only when we can frame a 
comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion," he writes, "can we 
formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the 
future." 25 The moment an author begins formulating political solutions to 
the problem of religion, it becomes all the more important to understand 
precisely what he takes that problem to be. 

God Is Not Great returns to the religious a modicum of the deprived them 
in Dennett's and Dawkins' memetic accounts. If Hitchens is to be believed, 
"the mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most 
devastating one. Religion is man-made." 26 He is notably less clear on why 
this should be so devastating. Certainly it provides stark contrast to the 
claims of those who hold that their religion originated with a theophany. It 
would, for example, contradict the creed of traditional Judaism for God Is 
Not Great to have put forward the argument (as it does not) that the Ten 
Commandments were actually drafted by human hands: if not the Moses of 
the Pentateuch, then some anonymous proto-Jew. There are, no doubt, 
fundamentalists of every major religious stripe who would argue that their 
own tradition bears the mark of divine stewardship, but few would seriously 
allege that no religion comes into being without its having been revealed, 
and there are many within each tradition who would gladly admit that the 
modern religious forms are the result of humans doing their best to capture 
some spark of the divine without ever knowing to what degree they have 
attained success. Hitchens' point ultimately proves to be less about 
provenance than about the grounds for belief. "And yet," he marvels, "the 
believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything." 

25 BtS, 310 
26G/A/G, 10 

The Taxonomy of Religion 123 

That, surely, is overstating the case, but it does point to the taxonomy by 
which Hitchens seems to circumscribe the topic of religion. "Thanks to the 
telescope and the microscope," he writes towards the end of God Is Not 
Great, religion "no longer offers an explanation of anything important." 27 
This takes it for granted that the function of religion is explanatory, as 
though it were clear that religion arose primarily as a means of generating 
true beliefs about literally mundane phenomena. The "four irreducible 
objections to religious faith" that Hitchens lists at the beginning of the book 
all hinge on that epistemic interpretation of the phenomenon of religion. 
They are: 

that it "wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that 
because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of 
servility "with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result of 
and cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately 
grounded on wish-thinking 28 

Those last two objections speak to the influence of Freud's The Future of 
an Illusion. There, according to Hitchens, "Freud made the obvious point 
that religion suffered from one incurable deficiency: it was too clearly 
derived from our own desire to escape from or survive death." 29 So far as 
Hitchens is concerned, "This critique of wish-thinking is strong and 
unanswerable," and perhaps it would be, if it were at all clear that religion 
intrinsically provided an answer to the problem and riddle of death. Some 
religions certainly seem to do so, with their visions of Heaven or Paradise, 
or escape from the continual cycle of suffering. Others prove more 
ambivalent. Traditional Judaism, for example, provides no afterlife. The 
classical paganisms sometimes did, but the afterlives they described were 
often as unrelenting and devoid of hope as the promise of total annihilation. 
The Houses of the Dead in the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, 
for example, are gray, featureless spaces, in which the dead sit in ash with 
little or no awareness of the world they inhabit, nor the one from whence 
they came. Greek religion seems to have developed idyllic visions of the 
afterlife rather late in its development, but in the Odyssey the eidola of even 

27 GING, 282 

28 GING, 4; the grammatical formula "combines the maximum of xwith the 
maximum of y," which Hitchens seems to have adapted from George 
Bernard Shaw's judgment on marriage, is one to which he resorts more than 
once, exemplifying a fondness for hyperbole. Cf. also GING, 232. 

29 GING, 103 

124 Against the Irreligious Right 

the semi-divine heroes survive death as mere shades, and take on vitality 
only during the brief interval in which Odysseus provides them with the 
spilt blood of ritually prepared heifers. Such visions are difficult to 
reconcile with the premise that religion develops as a form of wish- 

One may, perhaps, be forgiven for supposing that Freud has read too 
much of his own psychoanalytic theory into religious history; or that 
Hitchens has succumbed to the same impulse that leads young Marxists to 
see universal history as the fulcrum of an Archimedian lever. Both thereby 
streamline the complications that prevail when religion is actually 
encountered in the world. The largely a priori suggestion that religion 
explains the world and fulfills deep-seated human urges, all by the same 
sleight-of-hand, allows Hitchens to maintain the criticism that religion is 
necessarily at odds with other forms of human inquiry. Not only that, but 
religion also seeks, as a result of its artificiality, to impose its beliefs on 
others. "It is, after all," he explains, "wholly man-made. And it does not 
have the confidence of its own various preachings even to allow coexistence 
between different faiths." 30 Why this should not also be true of other man- 
made beliefs remains unclear. 

There are, in fact, notable exceptions. When, for example, Hitchens 
assures us that "religion has always hoped to practice upon the unformed 
and undefended minds of the young, and has gone to great lengths to make 
sure of this privilege by making alliances with secular powers in the 
material world," 31 he has apparently ignored the example of the Greco- 
Roman mystery religions, whose initiations typically barred instruction to 
all but the adult. He seems to be thinking mostly of the evangelical fervor of 
Christianity, but other religions have comparatively weak evangelical 
components. For example, while Judaism passes matrilineally, and thus 
places some emphasis on the religious education of the young, it has 
virtually no evangelical component. 

Yet it will be obvious to even the most cursory reader of their books that 
evangelism is a central concern of the New Atheist critique. The taxonomies 
they offer largely revolve around that component. Thus Harris argues that 
"every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which it has no 
evidence. In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which 
no evidence is even conceivable ," 32 It hardly seems to push the argument 
too far to say that, for Harris, religion is nothing but a system of beliefs 
predicated on insufficient evidence and accepted and elaborated irrationally. 

3QG/A/G, 17 

31 GING, 217 

32 TEoF, 23 

The Taxonomy of Religion 225 

That system is held together at the joints by fideism - or belief on the basis 
of faith alone - even in opposition to reason or counter-evidence. 

Despite the tensions that pull between their respective accounts of belief, 
the Horsemen seem to have all fallen victim to the same pivotal confusion. 
They have failed to sufficiently distinguish between belief, on the one hand, 
and creed, on the other. In fact, despite the sheer amount of space each book 
devotes to the subject of belief, the authors have typically written about 
creed. Where their accounts encounter to greatest difficulties tend to be the 
points where they have addressed creed as though it were naively 
assimilable to belief. 


It may be that the focus on creed that we find in the New Atheist accounts 
of religion results from an overfamiliarity with the Abrahamic traditions. 
Rabbinic Judaism, which arose in the 1 st century CE out of the destruction 
of the primary ritual spaces that Judaism had theretofore centered upon, 
shifted focus to the exegesis of the Torah. Early Catholicism consolidated 
creed as a means of unifying Christianity in the face of pagan opposition, 
and the medieval and Renaissance Inquisitions made credal uniformity a 
matter of public concern. Islam made recitation of the shahadah one of its 
Five Pillars and memorization of the Quran a mark of piety. Sects of 
Christian Protestantism promoted the Bible in order to counter and replace 
the institutional authority of Catholicism, resulting in literalist 
interpretations and the doctrines of Fundamentalism. In each of these cases, 
creed has been built into ritual forms, but the argument could be made that 
it is not the belief, but rather the ritual form (e.g. the recitation, the avowal, 
the exegesis) that makes each religious. Attend too closely to those models 
and it may seem that belief plays a uniform role in religion, but even in the 
cases of Judaism and Christianity, creed formed in a historical context and 
against a background of ritual. The fact that we today face Judaic, Christian 
and Islamic traditions with overwhelmingly strong credal forms seems to be 
less the result of the intrinsic nature of religion than of historical 

In his discussion of "belief in belief", as well as his acknowledgment of 
each person's outsider status with regards to the beliefs of others, Dennett 
comes closest to recognizing the ritual use of creed. Indeed religion has 
long recognized the tensions that arise from that outsider status. Here the 
Catholic example proves illuminating, not only because, of all the religious 
traditions most familiar to Western societies, it provides the clearest 
illustration of the principle, but also because the sheer immensity of the 
Roman Catholic Church's role in European history explains why we are so 

126 Against the Irreligious Right 

inclined to regard fidelity to creed (not to mention fideism) as part and 
parcel of all religious belief. Creed has long been a central concern for 
Catholicism; nothing proves that point quite so simply as the institutions of 
the Inquisition and excommunication. But our familiarity with those 
institutions may have misled us into making the unwarranted assumption 
that what is true of the Catholic tradition is universally characteristic of all 

It seems likely, in fact, that the Catholic emphasis on creed and profession 
of faith originated with the recognition, on the part of members of the early 
church, that we are, as Dennett puts it, outsiders with respect to the beliefs 
of others. Vocal adherence to a mutual creed serves as a corrective to the 
impossibility of assuring uniformity of belief. The crucial question then 
becomes, what made ensuring uniformity so urgent? Dennett offers his own 
answer in predictably memetic terms, but in doing so, does nothing to 
explain the variation we find from tradition to tradition. Put in more 
concrete terms, why should Catholicism develop an Inquisition, or Judaism 
a cherem, when other religious traditions, such as Shinto or Jainism, have 
little to compare? It is worth noting that the first several generations of 
Christianity seem to have been organized much more loosely; to have been 
much more tolerant of innovations; to have lacked, in fact, the sort of well- 
defined creedal formulations that would have made it possible to declare 
any other belief heretical. What changed? 

A compelling answer might be: the legal status of Christianity. During its 
earliest years, the Empire regarded Christianity as a sect of Judaism, and 
thus subject to the same exceptions granted to the Jews from observance of 
the State cult. In the latter half of the 1 st century CE, violent revolts in Judea 
drew the previously ambivalent relationship of the Jews and Romans into 
question, culminating in the Siege of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the 
Temple in 70 CE, a major turning point in the history of the Jewish religion. 
It is possible to discern at about the same time a more explicit effort on the 
part of Christians to distinguish themselves from the Jews. 33 Given the 
changing political fortunes of the Jewish citizens of Judea, it may have been 
immediately prudent to distance Christianity from Judaism, but once the 
Romans had subdued the last major Jewish revolt (that of Simon bar 
Kokhba in the first half of the second century) it was free to turn its 
attention to what it now recognized as a new and legally prohibited religion. 
It was around this time that the Roman persecution of Christianity began in 

33 Elaine Pagels has written convincingly on the evidence in the Gospel 
accounts themselves; cf. esp. The Origin of Satan (Vintage:1995). 

The Taxonomy of Religion 12J 

Put briefly, the historical circumstances of the early development of 
Christianity fostered a siege mentality among its adherents, and it was in 
that atmosphere that the demand for a measure of uniformity (or, more to 
the point, solidarity) took hold. Such siege mentalities appear to be a 
common context in which we find the insistence on orthodoxy that Dennett 
points to when he talks of belief in belief. We find another prominent 
example in the cherem declared against Baruch Spinoza in 1656. This was 
only 17 years after the opening of the first synagogue in Amsterdam, and 
only a little over 50 years after the first licensed gathering of Jews in the 
city. The Jewish community of the time was comprised mostly of exiled 
Polish Ashkenazim, Spanish Marranos and Sephardic Jews. They were 
tolerated in Amsterdam, but their status remained tenuous and uncertain. 
Most had known first hand, or were only a generation removed from, 
religious persecution. So while Spinoza's radical theological and ethical 
arguments no doubt offended the religious sensibilities of many in the 
Jewish community, the decision to issue a writ of cherem against him was 
also, in no small part, influenced by the desire to formally distance the 
Jewish community from a radical who was certain to draw the negative 
attention of their Dutch hosts. 34 

In light of the tactical value of an insistence on orthodoxy, it becomes 
reasonable to doubt Dennett's insistence that belief in belief evolved 
primarily for its usefulness in defending religion from skepticism. In favor 
of the siege explanation it is at least possible to marshall in historical 
evidence, however circumstantial. Dennett's evidence for his account 
proves much more tenuous. It requires, first of all, acceptance of his 
memetic explanation for the origin of religious ideas; then, of his case for 
the stewardship, or "memetic engineering," by which he distinguishes 
organized religion from its folk ancestry. Even having granted those 
premises, one is left with mostly post hoc ergo propter hoc rationalizations. 
For example: as one of the stronger countermeasures to the skepticism that 
threatens religious orthodoxy, Dennett introduces the "diabolical lie" - the 
conceit that anyone who "raises questions or objections about our religion 
that you cannot answer [...] is almost certainly Satan" and is therefore to be 
avoided. 35 "If I were designing a phony religion," he declares, "I'd surely 
include a version of this little gem." 

That quip, seemingly little more than an aside, is a particularly flagrant 
species of the sort of argument often brokered in to justify the conspiracy 

34 Given his advocacy of political denunciation - see "The Irreligious Right" - 
it is ironic that Dennett would fault the Amsterdam Jews for using the cherem 
to denounce Spinoza: Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 184-85, quoted in BtS, 244. 

35 BtS, 207 

128 Against the Irreligious Right 

theory explanation of religion, but it has also held a place in more academic 
theories as well. In explaining the development of the modern study of 
religion, the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard describes that sort of 
argument as the "introspectionist psychologist's" fallacy. It is informally 
known as "if I were a horse" thinking. Evans-Pritchard illustrated it (with 
respect to Herbert Spencer's theory of the origins of religion) by writing 
that, "If Spencer were living in primitive conditions, those would, he 
assumed, have been the steps by which he would have reached the beliefs 
which primitives hold." Since the publication of Evans-Pritchard 's survey 
and critique of the mainlines of anthropological and sociological theories of 
religion, the scientific establishment has viewed "if I were a horse" thinking 
askance. He explains the problem by saying that such theories have "the 
quality of a just-so story like 'how the leopard got his spots'." 36 Theory 
stands in for evidence, and the edifice of the argument is held together by 
little more than the facade of a priori reasonableness. On the whole, New 
Atheist accounts of the origin of religion have followed a similar pattern, 
wherein "a logical construction of the scholar's mind is posited on primitive 
man, and put forward as the explanation of his beliefs." 

The diabolical lie is, by Dennett's own admission, "almost literally, a 
trick with mirrors, and, like many good magic tricks, it's so simple that it's 
hard to believe it could ever work." Nevertheless Dennett somehow 
manages to suspend disbelief, perhaps without warrant. From a distance, 
versions of the diabolical lie may well seem simple, but closer examination 
reveals that it is often made possible only by systematic effort. At the very 
least, it seems to require, again, the maintenance of a siege mentality. 
"Communist cells," Dennett explains, "can be warned that any criticism 
they encounter is almost sure to be the work of FBI infiltrators in disguise, 
and radical feminist discussion groups can squelch any unanswerable 
criticism by declaring it to be phallocentric propaganda being unwittingly 
spread by a brainwashed dupe of the evil patriarchy, and so forth." 37 
Dennett seems a bit out of touch here. Those examples might well have 
seemed decisive in the 1960s and 70s, when the Communist and radical 
feminist versions of the diabolical lie were buttressed by the Cold War and 
heavy conservative reaction to the Civil Rights movement and sexual 
revolution, but the context of socialist and feminist thought has shifted since 
then. Without the (somewhat warranted) siege mentality that accompanied 

36 Theories of Primitive Religion, E. E. Evans-Pritchard (Oxford: 1965), 24-25; 
though Evan-Pritchard does not attribute it to him, the "if I were a horse" 
formulation may well have originated with the social anthropologist Alfred 

37 BtS, 206-207 

The Taxonomy of Religion 129 

those historical contexts, it seems highly unlikely that very many 
contemporary left wing thinkers or feminists would find them compelling 

But there remains a more pressing problem with Dennett's assessment, 
namely that, by his own principle, we have no reason to suppose that it 
really works against skepticism. The Communist version of the diabolical 
lie seems to have been most effective within the Soviet Union and Maoist 
China. If the citizens of those nations found it convincing, that may have 
been in large part because Soviet and Maoist governments maintained an 
extensive and costly apparatus for making it effective. The cost involved 
makes the diabolical lie more feasible as a concerted political strategy rather 
than as the sort of "free-floating rationale" Dennett has in mind. In terms of 
religion, that means the diabolical lie is more likely to crop up alongside an 
institution that has the resources and centralization necessary to field an 
Inquisition, than it is to gain any traction among less rigid traditions. 3S More 
to the present point, those systems ultimately provide an incentive for 
professing belief in the diabolical lie, even above the incentive they provide 
for actually believing it. To say that a skeptic is an FBI infiltrator in disguise 
is to send the coded message that the skeptic, and anyone who fails to 
sufficiently distance themselves from her, are candidates for denunciation to 
the authorities. Such examples give us no reason to suppose that anyone 
ever actually believed the diabolical lie strategy, only that they had good 
reason to fear the consequences of not professing belief. If anything, the 
need for intensive and extensive thought reform programs, propaganda 
apparatchiki, and rigidly closed borders ought to indicate that the demands 
of that sort of stewardship are steeper than Dennett acknowledges. 

Being Horsemen, it is perhaps only too apropos that versions of "if I were 
a horse" thinking should crop up with some frequency in their books, often 
in little asides like the one Dennett makes with regard to the diabolical lie. 
More problematic is the degree to which the same argument could be made 
against their more straight-faced proposals as to the origins of religion. 
Dennett himself argues that "folk religion" (which is, I take it, roughly 
analogous to the "primitive religion" of the 19 th and early 20 th century 
anthropologists) arises as the rationalization of cognitive misfirings. 
Believing that they have detected agency where there is in fact none, our 
proto-religious ancestors presumably developed an elaborate skein of 
concepts to explain those "false positives" - concepts like soul, spirit, god, 

38 It is again worth considering the irony in Dennett's insistence on an 
obligation to denounce among religious groups, as discussed in "The 
Irreligious Right." Nothing would seem better contrived to make a form of the 
diabolical lie strategy more pervasive than it presently is. 

130 Against the Irreligious Right 

and demon. This is plainly a form of introspectionist psychology - Dennett 
asking himself how he would have arrived at religious concepts had he been 
born a member of preliterate folk society. But his explanation presumes 
fundamental cognitive differences; it is as though he actually were talking 
about a different species. If I may editorialize for a moment, it almost seems 
that a kind of revulsion keeps critics of religion from supposing that religion 
could have originated with people like themselves. That "uncanny valley" 
proves particularly striking in God Is Not Great, where Hitchens argues that 
religion is transparently false, even to a child, but that it is nevertheless the 
product of ancient peoples who were merely doing the best they could to 
explain a mysterious world. 39 

For Harris, liberal attitudes towards religion are actually the result of a 
failure to sufficiently think from an "if I were a horse" perspective. How 
else are we to understand his repeated refrain that those who differ with him 
over what is to be done about religion simply do not understand what it is 
like to "really believe" in the tenets of a given religious faith? Here the 
confusion of belief with creed is more fundamental, perhaps even willful. It 
has required his close attention in order to maintain the tactical value that 
comes with it. The causal line that he draws between belief and the most 
abhorrent behavior of professed religious believers relies heavily on his 
refusal to clarify the difference between belief and creed. It allows him to 
treat creed as though it were a priori clear that it motivated the excesses of 
religious extremists. The attention that Harris devotes to strengthening the 
distinction between fundamentalists and religious moderates can, perhaps, 
be explained as one strategy for maintaining that ambiguity. "The truth, 
astonishingly enough, is this," he tells us: 

in the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material 
resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he "will get 
seventy-two virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and 
moderates have been very slow to understand. The cause of their 
confusion is simple: they don't know "what it is like to really believe in 
God. 40 

Yet it is worth noting that the focal point of his example is not theism 
itself, but rather orthodoxy. It is not belief in God that, on his account, 
motivated the suicide terrorism of the 9/11 hijackers, but rather their 
affirmation of a particular (and much disputed) Islamic hadith. Implicitly, 

39 These themes are placed in their larger historical context in "The Heirs of 
La Coterie Holbachique." 

40 LtaCN, 83 

The Taxonomy of Religion 131 

though, Harris has conflated theism with the wholesale acceptance of 
orthodoxy, and a motif that recurs throughout both of his earlier books is 
that a failure to affirm the entirety of a given religious creed amounts to a 
failure to sufficiently believe any part of that creed, even the most basic 
theological premise. 41 A similar strain informs Dennett's treatment of 
"Preachers Who Are Not Believers." 


It should be clear from the foregoing that significant problems arise from 
defining religion according to belief, and hardly any fewer problems arise 
when we substitute creed for belief. I do not here intend to provide anything 
quite so precise as a definition of religion. Rather, for the purpose of this 
essay it should suffice to provide a criteria for identifying religions in the 
wild, so to speak, as long as that criteria improves upon the New Atheist 
taxonomies by resolving the bulk of their contradictions and limitations. 
That can be achieved, it seems, by shifting our focus away from belief and 
profession, and onto practice. We may identify certain behaviors that are 
characteristically religious, and say that a person who practices them 
regularly is religious -just as a person who practices politics would qualify 
as political, without any consideration of what they may believe or profess. 
What are the characteristically religious behaviors? We may need to name 
nothing more than a certain class of rituals. 

By ritual I mean, first of all, behavior that is formulaic; it can be, at least 
in principle, repeated in order to reliably achieve certain effects. Not all 
rituals are necessarily religious; the pre-game ritual of the coin toss to 
decide which team will play offense first may be merely a practical solution 
to an unavoidable but not insoluble problem inherent to team sports. The 
sort of rituals needed in this context are those that aim at the transfiguration 
of the participant - as when the Catholic is absolved of their sin by 
participation in the Sacraments, the Pagan neophyte initiated in to the 
mysteries of their cult, or the adherent of Shinto ritually purified. Harris 
briefly acknowledges that characteristic of religion, writing that, "At the 
core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: 
it is possible to have one's experience of the world radically transformed." 42 
But he uses that acknowledgment only to segue between portions of a 
credal treatment of the topic. Personal transformation plays no part in his 

41 For more on that theme, see "The Diagnostics of Belief" and "A Drawing of 

42 TEoF, 204 

132 Against the Irreligious Right 

account of religion, and even here the sentence is contrived so as to 
emphasize the epistemic content (the "undeniable claim") over any ritual 
content. He may thereby have inverted the priority of belief and ritual. 
Belief in the doctrine of any give religious tradition may contribute to (or 
result from) the ritual, but ends up being, in either case, secondary to the 

To make clear a point that may seem counterintuitive, a participant need 
not believe in order to truly practice religion. By the same token, a person 
may believe in any number of credal formulations associated with religion, 
and yet fail to qualify as religious for lack of any ritual component. Thus, 
Dawkins can profess belief in the Zeitgeist that guides moral Progress, 43 
without thereby exposing himself as a "religious believer" - a term that 
invites reevaluation in light of our new criteria for identifying religion. If 
religion is more readily and reliably identified by ritual practice than by 
belief, then it stands to reason that religious believers may prove only a 
subset of the religious population as a whole, and that some believers 
(including some theists) may not be religious at all. 

A defining characteristic of the transfigurations that are the aim of 
religious practice may be that they are, from the perspective of the outsider, 
merely symbolic. That does not mean that the participant herself will view 
them as primarily symbolic, though nor does it preclude the possibility that 
she will prefer the symbolic interpretation to a more literal one. The Roman 
Catholic controversy over the transubstantiation of the Host serves as a 
suitably concrete illustration of the principle, with the doctrinaire Catholic 
claiming that the wine and cracker literally become the blood and body of 
Christ, though the scientifically -minded secularist finds no evidence of their 
change. In the end, it may not even matter whether or not the Catholic 
involved in the Eucharist believes in the transubstantiation of the Host; what 
matters to her will be the ritual's role in her own transfiguration. All that 
changes by subtracting transubstantiation from the ritual may be the 
participants credal allegiance, from orthodox Roman Catholicism to some 
brand of Protestantism. 

We might say, then, that religious rituals are subjective, rather than 
objective. Acknowledgment that another person's experience of some such 
ritual matches our own requires an element of trust - or if you prefer, faith. 
Trust, rather than the "belief without evidence" canard preferred by New 
Atheist accounts, seems to form the core of most conceptions of faith, both 
secular and religious. Thus contracts must avoid "bad faith," plaintiffs for 
justice rely on their faith in the institution to which they have petitioned 

43 See the "Landscapes and Zeitgeists" for more on those apparent lapses of 

The Taxonomy of Religion 133 

(else they seek justice some other way), and marriage ceremonies elicit 
promises of fidelity. Once we have abandoned the purported centrality of 
belief, the active extension of trust becomes the primary religious role 
played by faith. 

Having suggested the barest outline of a criteria for identifying religion, 
let us see how that criteria holds up in practice. We may start with the 
broadest standards of applicability. Are there any phenomenon that we 
would all agree are religion, but that would not be identified as such by our 
criteria? I can think of none. All seem to have some form of ritual that may 
be described from an outside perspective as symbolic and which aims at 
some form of transfiguration. None of those mutually agreed upon 
examples are left out of account as they are by the multiple criteria 
suggested by the Horsemen's accounts. 

Moreover the fact that the immediate results of religious ritual will 
generally be, from an outside perspective, regarded as merely symbolic 
allows us to draw some distinctions that those other criteria are poor at 
excluding. That is to say, the subjectivity of religion distinguishes it, on the 
one hand, from magic, which is supposed to afford the direct manipulation 
of empirical phenomenon; and also distinguishes it, on the other hand, from 
politics, which aims at practical alterations in the structure of society. The 
effects of both, then, should be open to consensus, even among those who 
deny the efficacy of the practices involved. Either a magician can levitate, 
or he cannot. In principle, it should matter little whether or not you believe 
it can be done. 

That the most characteristically religious behavior is generally subjective 
need not exclude the view that devout religious observance can have a 
significant impact, whether for good or ill, on the world of common 
experience. It does, however, strongly imply that the empirical effect 
happen at several removes from the ritual itself. The religious adherent 
becomes a force for good in the world, if at all, by first transforming 
herself; e.g. by finding her Buddha-nature; by submitting to Allah or the 
Law; or by striving to become more Christ-like. Politics typically inverts 
that relationship, as when Communism seeks to transform the nature of 
individuals by a prolonged process of altering the tangible conditions in 
which they live. If there remains any question as to whether or not 
totalitarian regimes are intrinsically political or religion, one need only look 
to the vast reordering of their respective societies, economies and legal 
systems to see that they are, first and foremost, political. 

By the same token, if we take the simplistic view that the function of 
prayer is to goad a supernatural agent into producing certain effects in the 
world, then prayer would not count as a characteristically religious ritual. 
Generally speaking, that is the view tested by the studies all Four Horsemen 

i^4 Against the Irreligious Right 

cite, 44 and it is hardly surprising that the results should incline against the 
suggestion that God functions as a supernatural vending machine. 
Supposing that prayer is a form of ritual restores its religious value. Those 
on the inside are thus free to see it as a transformative act, while those on 
the outside may picture it as a largely symbolic act. 

Here the potential for confusion arises. When the religious participant 
treats prayer as mechanical operation (pull the lever, win a prize) they turn 
it into a kind of magical, rather than strictly religious, act. But regarding 
prayer as an appeal that might be heeded does not necessarily make a magic 
show of it. When a request made in prayer is not met according to the letter, 
it is common to hear a devout petitioner say, "God works in mysterious 
ways," or, "It wasn't God's will." Dennett, convinced that all such behavior 
must be looked at in terms of belief, has argued that these are tactical 
evasions that maintain the efficacy of prayer even in the face of its apparent 
failure. In doing so, he has overlooked the potential ritual value of such 
explanations. Prayer, seen as a ritual, may be said to transform the 
petitioner's relationship to the world by way of the dynamic that arises 
between she and her god. That dynamic, from Dennett's perspective as an 
outsider, may be little more than symbolic, and especially so since, from the 
same perspective, the agent on the other side of the relationship is likewise 
only symbolic. But that does nothing to change the petitioner's experience 
of transformation. 


By these examples I have hoped to suggest some of the ways in which it 
may be rational to regard practice as a better criteria for identifying 
religious phenomenon than the taxonomies offered by the Four Horsemen. 
It remains to examine some of the consequences for their accounts should 
that criteria prove acceptable. For them, no doubt, these consequences will 
make my suggestion entirely unwelcome, in proportion with their 
commitment to a given polemic. 

First of all, shifting from belief to practice as the central identifying 
feature requires a reassessment of the religious classifications they have 
offered. Insofar as Buddhism consists of a set of rituals that may be used to 
"have one's experience of the world radically transformed," 45 it is at hazard 
of being classed a religion. Harris comes close to recognizing as much when 
he identifies such transformation as residing, "at the core of every religion," 
and salvages his own ritual form only by insisting on the fideist taxonomy 

44 Cf. esp. TGD, 85-90 and BtS, 274-275. 

45 TEoF, 204 

The Taxonomy of Religion 2^5 

of religion. He is, therefore, almost certainly the least likely among the Four 
Horsemen to acknowledge the merits of the criteria on offer here, not from 
any incapacity on his part, but because doing so might put him on the wrong 
side of the rhetorical divide. It may be that, since the publication of The End 
of Faith, Harris has encountered work that further challenges the emphasis 
he places on belief. The Moral Landscape finds him begrudgingly 
acknowledging ritual, then quickly reiterating the position that "belief 
precedes ritual and that a practice like prayer is usually thought to be a 
genuine act of communication with a God (or gods)." 46 In support of that 
position he offers precisely no evidence. To that end, we might ask how 
Harris has determined that "the doctrine of Transubstantiation remains the 
most plausible origin" of the ritual of Catholic Mass 47 - particularly when 
so much of the evidence of the history of Catholicism suggests that the 
basic ritual elements of Mass had taken shape long before the articulation of 
that doctrine? 48 

What, then, are we to make of the program he suggests in the chapter 
"Experiments in Consciousness" from his first book? 49 Meditation he 
presents as "any means whereby our sense of 'self - of subject/object 
dualism in perception and cognition - can be made to vanish, while 
consciousness remains vividly aware of the continuum of experience." 
Presumably, he does not really mean "any means," else the neurologist 
Oliver Sacks could no doubt suggest some surgical "meditation" that would 
permanently obliterate that sense of self for him. No, Harris seems to be 
talking specifically about rituals resulting in subjective effects and which 
result in a transfiguration that the skeptic might call merely symbolic. He 
offers several rationalizations that allow him to dismiss, at least to his own 
satisfaction, any suggestion that what he is doing might be religious. The 
contradictions entailed by those evasions are argument enough for the need 
of a better criteria for identifying religion. "Mysticism is a rational 
enterprise," he argues. "Religion is not." What "rational" could mean in that 
context is anyone's guess. 

Similarly, the lines Dawkins draws throughout The God Delusion come 
into question under the new criteria. His attempts to wring from Robert 

46 TML, 148 

47 TML, 149 

48 Transubstantiation is, at most, suggested by the language in gospel 
accounts of the Last Supper, but even if we injudiciously date that as the 
origin of the doctrine, the Last Supper was likely patterned after the Jewish 
tradition of Passover Seder - a clear instance of ritual preceding creed. 

49 TEoF, 204-221 

136 Against the Irreligious Right 

Winston some admission that his Judaism was essentially Einsteinian, 50 for 
instance, takes on a new character. Even if Winston were to admit that he 
"has no theistic beliefs, but shares the poetic naturalism that the cosmos 
provokes in other scientists," he would not thereby leave the ranks of the 
religious. It is, rather, his participation in the rituals of Judaism that mark 
him as religious. For the most part the Deists could likely be left on 
Dawkins side of the ledger, excepting those who participated in the Cult of 
Reason that arose during the French Revolution; the Pantheists whom 
Dawkins considers little more than "sexed-up" atheists, however, would 
have to be checked for rituals, and Spinoza almost certainly returns to the 
religious camp. Indeed, the supposed opposition between atheism and 
religion falls apart, since there can be no direct opposition between a lack of 
belief and a behavior with no intrinsic epistemic content. Dennett's 
presumed "non-believing clergy" would continue to qualify as religious, 
whether or not they believe in the deity associated with their respective 

The insistence on an evolutionary explanation that identifies religion as a 
misfiring of some other cognitive faculty depends in large part on the 
supposition that religion is primarily a form of belief. Thus, the notion that 
it is better identified by ritual in pursuit of the experience of transfiguration 
calls into question the entirety of Dennett's account of the rise of religion. 
Such accounts need not be declared wrong, but it will be acknowledged that 
they suffer from a misplaced emphasis on the origins and development of 
structures of belief. Likewise, the new criteria obviates the more simplistic 
and largely outdated suggestion, offered by both Harris and Hitchens, that 
religion arose as a misguided attempt to explain the natural world. From the 
neutral, outside perspective, the phenomenon of religion may still be 
regarded as the by-product of other cognitive states, but the emphasis on 
practice opens the possibility that religious behavior takes advantage of the 
cognitive features that make it possible, rather than suffers them as design 
flaws. On this account, the religious ecstasy of the Medlevi dervish is not a 
consequence of the sort of brain humans have, but rather a creative and 
deliberate utilization of the idiosyncrasies of that apparatus. Contra 
Dennett's analogy, religion is not a parasite that makes the dervish whirl; 
rather, the dervish's consciousness allows him to use religion in order to 
provoke certain responses from a brain that may in turn alter that 
consciousness. If anything, human consciousness is the fluke. 

We might, no doubt, go on in that vein for some time, elaborating further 
consequences. Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of 
how the Four Horsemen circumscribe religion as a phenomenon for the 

50 TGD, 35; see "A Drawing of Lines" for context. 

The Taxonomy of Religion l^y 

critique that each renders. If we are to acknowledge a logical unity in their 
arguments, it becomes all but imperative that we make the effort to trace 
those arguments back to a grounded view of the subject in question. If it 
turns out, as this essay suggests, that they have built their arguments on a 
unsteady foundation, one that misidentifies the subject from the very 
beginning, then how can we have any confidence in the conclusions to 
which they argue? Ultimately, recognizing the limitations of their accounts 
requires a reassessment of the judgments they have passed against religion. 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 

The Four Horsemen are most united, and most emphatic, when they 
oppose religion on grounds that it is inherently immoral. It is not merely 
that we do not need religion to be truly moral, but that religion is 
antithetical to the development genuine morality. In order to make that 
argument, the Horsemen must insist that we can, at least in principle, agree 
on what counts as moral. And so long as they stick to issues on which a 
clear social consensus already prevails, that insistence is likely to go 
unchallenged. For example: after dredging up a handful of Bible verses that 
acknowledge and regulate the practice of slavery, Harris concludes that, 
"while the abolitionists of the nineteenth century were morally right, they 
were on the losing side of a theological argument." 1 As far as he is 
concerned, "Nothing in Christian theology remedies the appalling 
deficiencies of the Bible on what is perhaps the greatest - and the easiest - 
moral question our society has ever had to face." 2 

That issue may well seem an easy one, provided you stand at the proper 
end of history. Yet, for the greater part of the last 4,000 years, the social 
reality of slavery was more often given than not. Harris writes as though 
Christian adherence to the moral authority of the Bible were the primary 
obstacle to abolition, in part by insisting on the exclusive legitimacy of its 
fundamentalist variants. If it were true that religion functioned by insisting 
on the complete and unquestioning fidelity to an unassailable textual 
authority, that argument might carry weight. But there is little reason to 
suppose that the ossification of religious tradition has ever been so routine 
as he implies. Christian fundamentalism arose in the 20 th century United 
States, and even the unquestionable centrality of scripture was a doctrinal 

1 LtaCN, 17 
z LtaCN, 17-18 


140 Against the Irreligious Right 

innovation when the Protestants of the 16 th century Reformations suggested 
it as a means of displacing the institutional authority of the Roman Catholic 

Despite Dawkins' insistence that "we (and that includes most religious 
people) as a matter of fact don 't get our morals from scripture," the example 
of slavery is illuminating in part because scripture seems nevertheless to 
have played an important role in paving the way for the longest sustained 
absence of institutional slavery in European history. To understanding how 
that could be so, it is only necessary to take seriously Harris' contention that 
the moral issue was, for Christians, a theological question. The scriptural 
justifications for slavery that he presents are, strictly speaking, not 
theological at all. It would be a stretch to call the deutero-Pauline verse 
commanding slaves to "be obedient to those who are your earthly masters" 3 
theological in any literal sense of the term. However, there is compelling 
evidence to suggest that early Christians built an ideological opposition to 
slavery on the strength of a religiously constructed vision of humanity's 
relationship to the God of Judeo-Christian tradition, and did so in the teeth 
of the very model of a slave civilization. 4 That such opposition put them at 
odds with the culture in which they lived only serves to emphasize the role 
their religious commitments played in putting them on what we, on this side 
of abolition, consider to be the right side of the moral issue. For the better 
part of 1,500 years, and apparently on the slender premise that God invests 
each individual with an immortal soul, most Christians eschewed the 
institution on which Rome had built the most expansive and powerful 
Empire then known to Europe. 

While that example alone would hardly be sufficient to build an 
inarguable case against the simplifications of the polemical atheists, it 
should be enough to suggest the outlines of how religion actually influences 
moral reasoning. The paradigm that Harris presents is, at best, a distorting 
simplification, and at worst, a straw man. It serves the rhetorical purpose of 
presenting the relationship between morality and religion in the worst 
possible light, but cannot stand up to historical investigation. Even modern 
fundamentalists, whom Harris favorably contrasts to religious moderates, 
derive their moral commitments by a similar process. The typical 
fundamentalist position vis a vis abortion, for example, cannot be deduced 
from an unadorned, literal reading of the Bible. It is built, rather, on an 
extrapolation from theological principle. 

3 Ephesians 6:5, quoted in LtaCN, 16; "deutero-Pauline" because most 
modern scholars dispute the authorship of Ephesians. 

4 Cf. eg. Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, 
Elaine Pagels (Vintage: 1989) 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists l^i 

Given their polemical interest in leveraging a moral consensus against the 
claims of religious moral authority, it comes as no surprise that the 
Horsemen are united in opposing the suggestion that morality might be 
relative. Moral realism - the position that there are objectively right and 
wrong answers about morality - allows them to reject any suggestion that 
religious morality might be valid within its own context. In part, they do so 
by insisting on a very narrow sense of the term moral relativism. "No one," 
as Harris explains it, "is ever really right about what he believes; he can 
only point to a community of peers who believe likewise. Suicide bombing 
isn't really wrong, in any absolute sense; it just seems so from the parochial 
perspective of Western culture." 5 Aptly enough, this caricature comes under 
the heading, "The Demon of Relativism," as though to admit that Harris' 
design is to demonize the very notion that perspectives are relative. To put it 
into context, he writes, "Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay 
intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, 
ethnocentrism, and racism." 6 In fact, we may observe the first stirrings of 
modern moral relativism long before colonialism and the articulation of the 
racial and ethnocentric theories that characterize modern history, 
particularly in popular reactions to John Mandeville's Travels. It already 
had wide currency by the time of the Enlightenment to which the New 
Atheists are so committed. 7 

Harris draws a distinction useful for understanding types of relativism, 
though the Horsemen themselves never put it to that use. The distinction is 
between the epistemic and ontological senses of the terms "objective" and 
"subjective." 8 A person who espouses moral relativism may mean either that 
morals themselves are relative (ontological relativism), or that our 
knowledge about morality is relative to our circumstances (epistemic 
relativism). The Horsemen unanimously object to moral relativism of the 
ontological type; that is, to the idea that there are no objectively right and 
wrong answers to moral questions. But this they too often conflate with 
moral relativism of the epistemic sort, which may amount to nothing more 
than the claim that we have yet to find any foolproof way of determining 
the answers to those questions. A person can espouse the epistemic version 
without thereby committing themselves to the ontological. In fact, pace 

5 TEoF, 178 

6 TML, 45 

7 For example, see Mandeville's effects on Mennochio in The Cheese and 
the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, Carlos Ginzburg 
(Johns Hopkins:1980); for his effect on moral and epistemic thought of the 
day, cf. esp. Montaigne's Essays (1580). 

8 TML, 29 

142 Against the Irreligious Right 

Harris, that seems to be something like the default position for 
contemporary philosophers and social scientists. 9 

Distinctions of that sort prove to be of great consequence when it comes 
to understanding the subject of morality. In any discussion of moral and 
ethical theory, then, it behooves us to begin by clarifying our terms and 
attending to some of the more persistent issues that complicate the field. 
There is, first of all, the matter of what we mean by "morality" and by 
"ethics." As a starting point, we may take it as granted that both refer to 
criteria for behavior: that is, to the question of what we ought to do. By 
definition, morality and ethics do more than describe: to qualify as moral or 
ethical, they must prescribe. They are often used in popular discussion as 
though they were approximately synonymous, but insofar as it bears on the 
arguments presented by the Four Horsemen, there are strong practical 
arguments for distinguishing between the two. While it would involve us in 
something like a genetic fallacy to insist on defining them according to 
lexicographical origins, we may at least suggest the conceptual point of 
divergence between them by pointing out that the word "moral" is derived 
from the Latin mors, indicating custom: "ethics," from the Greek ethos, 
character. As such, we tend to think of morality as the standards of conduct 
that we inherit from the culture into which we are born, while the 
individualistic, philosophical discipline of constructing such standards 
logically is generally termed ethics. Both have, at times, been associated 
with the notions of good and evil, right and wrong, or some other such 
dichotomy: this will prove to be of great consequence further on. 

I have found little evidence in their work to suggest that the Four 
Horsemen make use of any conscientious distinction between morality and 
ethics along those lines, but I think the distinction is worth noting, if for no 
other reason than that morality's association with tradition, and with 
traditional dichotomies like good and evil, make it a natural fit for religion, 
while the least we can say of the critique rendered by polemical atheism is 
that it aspires to the status of ethical theory. That the authors tolerate some 
measure of ambiguity in their use of the two terms is not without 
consequence, and it sometimes proves unclear whether they mean to invoke 
one set of associations or another. To that confusion it will be necessary to 
add a third term: casuistry. That I have noticed, only Harris and Hitchens 

9 Cf. e.g. "The PhilPapers Survey," November 2009, a survey of more than 
3,000 philosophy professionals, faculty members, PhDs and graduate 
students. Over 56% of the respondents either accepted or leaned toward 
"moral realism," while only about 28% accepted or leaned toward moral 
"anti-realism." The surveys may be accessed at 
surveys/ . 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 143 

even mention casuistry, and both in the pejorative sense of a subtle or 
specious evasion of logical consequence. 10 There is, however, a neutral and 
more technical sense of the term that is more to our purpose. In the context 
of ethical philosophy, casuistry refers to the application of moral or ethical 
reasoning to particular cases, the word being derived from the Latin casus, 
meaning "case." 

An illustration: Benjamin Constant, the early 19 th century author of the 
psychological novel Adolphe, challenged Immanuel Kant's "Categorical 
Imperative" by asking whether it would be ethical to lie to a murderer about 
the location of his intended victim. The categorical imperative seemed to 
imply that it would be unethical to do so, but many people were inclined to 
suppose that the greater good rested with protecting the intended victim 
from harm. Kant responded to Constant with the essay On a Supposed Right 
to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives, which provocatively concluded that it 
would, indeed, be unethical to lie, even if doing so would be a convenient 
way to avert violence. We have, then, three exemplary works, one of 
morality, one of ethics, and one of casuistry. The ethical theory that informs 
Kant's response was his Categorical Imperative, described in an earlier 
book, the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Because it applies 
the ethical premise of a categorical imperative to the case suggested by 
Constant, On a Supposed Right serves as an instance of casuistry. And 
Constant's challenge invokes traditional morality, by playing on the tension 
that can arise between inherited or intuitive judgments and ethical theory, 
the consequences of which may not be entirely clear from the outset. 

Much of what we shall be concerned with in what follows hinges on the 
consequences entailed by seemingly straightforward attempts to ground 
ethical theory in rational bedrock. The important point is that, in principle if 
not always in practice, casuistry necessarily stands on a prior foundation of 
moral or ethical theory, and the soundness of any particular instance of 
casuistry depends on the soundness of the underlying theory. That 
relationship proves critical since what the Horsemen present as moral and 
ethical reasoning sometimes proves upon closer examination to be casuistry, 
leaving frustratingly open the question of whether it is based on a prior 
foundation of sound theory. 

The difference between the ethical principle of Kant and the moral 
objection of Constant may also be taken as an example of the modern 
distinction between consequentialism and deontology. Consequentialism 

10 Harris uses it to dismiss Islamic pacifism as an evasion of credal 
injunctions to violence: TEoF, 111 & 113; Hitchens uses it to contrast the 
New Testament characterization of the Pharisees to the integrity of Socrates: 
GING, 120 & 256, respectively. 

144 Against the Irreligious Right 

may be described as the disposition for judging the morality of a thing or 
behavior based on the anticipation of its consequences. Constant gestures 
towards consequentialism when he suggests that the lie told to the murderer 
would be justified so long as it spared the intended victim from a worse 
fate. In a broader sense, consequentialism presumes the desirability of a 
given state of affairs, and judges behaviors by their propensity to bring 
about that state. By contrast, deontology (derived from the Greek deon, 
"duty," and logos, "word") focuses on the purported intrinsic value of 
imperatives or rules. Kant's suggestion, that the value in a moral rule 
against lying rests in its universality, represents a classic example of 
deontological ethics. 

Generally, religious moral codes take the form of absolute injunctions, 
and are, therefore, characteristically deontological. Yet it would be going to 
far to take theism as a reliable indicator of deontological alignment, as 
Dawkins seems to do in the case of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He marvels 
that she "actually said, in her speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, 'The 
greatest destroyer of peace is abortion. ' What? How can a woman with such 
cock-eyed judgment be taken seriously on any topic, let alone be thought 
worthy of a Nobel Prize." 11 Perhaps because his source for the quotation 
was Hitchens' polemical book The Missionary Position, rather than the 
speech itself, Dawkins seems to have assumed that Teresa had deontological 
reasons for her declaration. One page over, Dawkins admits that, "a 
consequentialist might have grounds to oppose abortion. 'Slippery slope' 
arguments can be framed by consequentialists (though I wouldn't in this 
case). Maybe embryos don't suffer, but a culture that tolerates the taking of 
human life risks going too far: where will it all end?" Turning directly to the 
Nobel speech itself, we find Mother Teresa making just that point. Abortion 
is "the greatest destroyer of peace," she specifies, "Because if a mother can 
kill her own child - what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me - there 
is nothing between." 12 The implication is that participating in abortion eases 
the way to murder by encouraging a more cavalier attitude towards fully 
developed human life. Even if a person disagrees with her premise, she has 
clearly framed the topic in consequentialist language. 

Further confusion is evident in a section of The God Delusion entitled "A 
Case Study in the Roots of Morality" 13 There, Dawkins presents in 
miniature a string of "thought experiments" as a means "of introducing the 
way moral philosophers think." The examples are drawn from biologist 
Marc Hauser's book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal 

11 TGD, 330 

12 "Nobel Lecture," December 11, 1979 

13 TGD, 254-258 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists i^5 

Sense of Right and Wrong, and pose what Dawkins calls "a hypothetical 
moral dilemma," on the premise that "the difficulty we experience in 
answering it tells us something about our sense of right and wrong." In fact, 
this has very little to do with moral philosophy. Hauser has taken traditional 
exercises in casuistry and applied them to the purpose of discerning how his 
subjects bring moral judgment to bear. For Dawkins, "the interesting thing 
is that most people come to the same decisions when faced with these 
dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger 
than their ability to articulate their reasons." Given our distinction between 
morality and ethics, that hardly proves surprising: most everyone is capable 
of reasoning from culturally inherited moral premises, but it requires the 
more specialized and rare discipline of ethical philosophy to articulate one's 
reasons for how those premises are applied. Nevertheless, Dawkins 
interprets that consistency as evidence of an innate morality, since those 
results are "what we should expect if we have a moral sense which is built 
into our brains, like our sexual instinct or our fear of heights or, as Hauser 
himself prefers to say, like our capacity for language." It is characteristic of 
his line of argument that, while Hauser compares moral thought to a faculty 
(language), Dawkins likens it to an instinct or reflex, as though morality 
were the sort of physical reaction one had to looking over the ledge of a tall 
building. All of this is meant to stand in support of Dawkins' conclusion, 
"that we do not need God in order to be good - or evil," but here he has 
mistaken the character of Hauser 's study, which does not asses the validity 
of moral claims at all. At best, it tests for consistency between groups where 
we might expect to find different moral judgements at play. Moral Minds 
examines the way in which people reason from traditional moral principles, 
i.e. how they practice casuistry. But that tells us nothing (and cannot, even 
in principle, tell us anything) about whether or not those premises are 
actually moral, nor whether or not Hauser's subjects have applied them 
correctly. For that, we need ethics. 

The central ethical issue is epistemic: how can we ever know what we 
ought to do. Put simply, how do we know that a given thing is "good," or 
that a given behavior is "moral?" To illustrate the difficulty behind such 
questions, consider how a scientist would determine the answer to the 
following question: how do we know that a given object is made of gold? 
Archimedes was tasked with answering just that question, and the solution 
he formulated involved comparing the volume of water the object displaced 
to the volume of water displaced by an object of the same dimensions 
known to be pure gold. The point is that scientific study hinges on 
experiments with empirical objects. In the context of ethical philosophy, 
epistemology is invoked to address the question of how we establish the 

146 Against the Irreligious Right 

truth of ethical claims that apparently have no empirical content apart from 
their professed capacity to oblige certain behaviors. 

In the 1 8 th century this problem was cast in stark relief by the Scottish 
philosopher David Hume in his formulation of what is traditionally known 
as the is-ought problem. Hume expressed it by noting that, 

In every system of morality, "which I have hitherto met "with, I have 
always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the 
ordinary "ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or 
makes observations concerning human affairs; "when all of a sudden I 
am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of 
propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not 
connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; 
but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, 
expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it 
shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason 
should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this 
new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely 
different from it. 14 

Historically, Hume's formula has been taken to burden those making ethical 
claims with the responsibility for grounding those claims in a context of 
epistemic theory. It would not go too far to say that the is-ought problem 
charted the course for all subsequent ethical philosophy, and drew into 
question all that had preceded it. 


In the context of their irreligious polemic, Dennett and Hitchens have, 
perhaps wisely, chosen not to address that burden directly. By contrast, 
Harris and Dawkins have both attempted to supplement their moral 
criticisms of religion with the construction of supposedly scientific theories 
of morality. The results more often resemble theories of behaviorism. 

A sophisticated (or, if you prefer, sophistical) attempt to solve that 
problem has grown out of attempts on the part of evolutionary psychologists 
to determine the biological origin of our capacity for moral thought. 
Dawkins expresses the main line when he writes that, "If our moral sense, 
like our sexual desire, is indeed rooted deep in our Darwinian past, 
predating religion, we should expect that research on the human mind 

14 A Treatise of Human Nature, (1739) Bk. Ill, Part I, § I 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 147 

would reveal some moral universals, crossing geographical and cultural 
barriers, and also, crucially, religious barriers." 15 The typical process of 
deriving morality from "our Darwinian past" begins by implying an 
exclusive association between morality and altruism. "In general," writes 
Dawkins, "as my late colleague W. D. Hamilton showed, animals tend to 
care for, defend, share resources with, warn of danger, or otherwise show 
altruism towards close kin because of the statistical likelihood that kin will 
share copies of the same genes." 16 To the extent that it suggests volition, 
that "because" proves misleading. On the evolutionary account the causal 
relationship is precisely the reverse: animals behave altruistically not in 
order to increase the fitness of shared genes, but because the genes which 
dispose them towards altruistic behavior are strategically more stable. 17 
Dawkins no doubt recognizes that behaviorist perspective, but putting the 
relationship in its most logically sound order would weaken his rhetorical 
point. By gesturing towards causation, Dawkins suggests a direct 
relationship between moral concern and the genetic imperative. 

Two dangers immediately arise. On the one hand, the genetic rationale 
may be taken to negate morality in the full sense of the term. Given that all 
morality reduces to altruism, and that all altruism is an effect of genetically- 
encoded behavioral predispositions, then perhaps our preference for moral 
behavior is no more prescriptive than our preference for sweet and salty 
foods. No one says that it is moral to prefer sweet and salty foods; we are 
biologically disposed to prefer them, and so we do. Likewise, if morality is 
a disposition, then perhaps there is no more objective reason to prefer moral 
behavior than there is to prefer sweet over bitter. In this new context, 
altruism becomes merely descriptive: we feed the hungry not because we 
ought to, but because we are the kind of animal that does so. This reverses 
the priority of Hume's is-ought problem, dissolving ought into just another 
state description. To say, as Dawkins and company seem to suggest, that we 
ought to prefer moral behavior because it works as a sound evolutionary 
strategy resolves nothing, since we are then thrown back on the question of 
why we ought to value the results of sound evolutionary strategy. The only 
answer the evolutionary account of morality can provide is that we ought to 
because we do. 

Dawkins would, I think, reject that transformation of morality, but does 
nothing to circumvent it. One reason may be that his interest in ethical 
theory is largely defensive. Against the suggestion that people cannot 

15 TGD, 254 

16 TGD, 247 

17 Precisely here, the association between morality and altruism falls prey to 
the naturalistic fallacy, which will be explained in greater detail further on. 

l/f8 Against the Irreligious Right 

sustain morality without religion, he has put forward an explanation of 
morality that is meant to persuade us that humans will naturally develop a 
consistent moral sensibility. Atheism and irreligion are, therefore, nothing to 
fear. In doing so, he has failed to recognize how that explanation undercuts 
what it is that distinguishes moral behavior from any other kind of behavior. 
To paraphrase Sartre's formulation of Karamazov's thesis: without ought, 
all things are permitted. 

The second danger is that Dawkins' account of morality will survive that 
potential self -negation by enshrining genetic altruism as the basis for ethical 
thought: that the gene will, in traditional moral terms, be understood as the 
final arbiter of the good. One of the challenges of ethical philosophy is the 
way in which the introduction of new premises results in unexpected but 
entirely logical consequences. If Dawkins and company have failed to chart 
the potential for unforeseen conclusions in their moral inquiry, that is likely 
because they had hoped to change out one foundation for another, while 
nevertheless arriving at substantially the same conclusions as before. Harris 
exposes that conservatism when he writes that, "there is every reason to 
expect that kindness, compassion, fairness, and other classically 'good' 
traits will be vindicated neuroscientifically - which is to say that we will 
only discover further reasons to believe that they are good for us, in that 
they generally enhance our lives." 18 In their advocacy of those moral 
virtues, they are mostly aligned with the religious, but opposed to the role 
religion plays in advocating moral norms. Notable breaks over specific 
issues, such as that of abortion, present themselves, but for the most part 
Dawkins intends for his system to arrive at a set of prescriptions that most 
religious believers would recognize as moral, in that, like religious 
proscriptions, they prohibit murder, theft, dishonesty, and so on. 

Instead, attempts to ground moral theory in evolutionary accounts of the 
origins of altruism threaten to prove that our genes are indeed selfish, and 
they are claiming morality for themselves. History has, in fact, seen 
attempts to place Darwinian evolution at the heart of ethics. The historian 
Richard Hofstadter described a few such trends in his indispensable 
monograph, Social Darwinism in American Thought 19 A gene-centric moral 
theory need not as a matter of course fit those prior molds, but the almost 
inevitable logical consequence of any gene-centric theory is that it will 
sacrifice the individual for the proliferation of traits. It is, in that regard, 
eugenic, and the only escape from that consequence is to suppose a prior 
good that trumps biological altruism. That is to say, that the only way to 
curb the detriment that accrues to the human subjects of a eugenic moral 

18 TML, 80 

19 Pennsylvania:! 944 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists l^g 

theory is to deny, after all, that morality refers primarily genetic 
imperatives. Taken as an ethical axiom, enshrining biological altruism as the 
factual basis for moral imperatives exposes us to the sort of logic that ends 
in the conclusion that any person may be sacrificed so long as doing so will 
be of likely advantage to her genes by way of her relatives. Feeding 
grandmother, for example, diverts precious resources away from her 
grandchildren of childbearing age; letting her starve could potentially 
benefit the genetic line that she unknowingly privileges when she herself 
behaves morally. 

Falling back on evolutionary explanations for altruistic behavior satisfies 
only so long as the consequences of those explanations coincide with what 
we expect of morality. It could at most be argued that such accounts provide 
the basis for a contingent morality, one which points to the evolutionary 
rationale for altruism as the model for how we ought to behave if we want 
to ensure the good of humanity. In Dawkins' account the main beneficiary is 
the gene. Any benefit that accrues to individual people or to society does so 
incidentally, if at all. But however all else may be measured, humanity 
remains the best measure of its own morality. Fortunately, the eugenic 
principle expressed by Dawkins may be easily dismissed on logical 
grounds, as it fails to meet the standard for prescription and cannot, in the 
end, solve the is-ought problem. All Dawkins has really said is that humans 
can, on average, be relied upon to behave altruistically; not that we ought 

If Dawkins has fallen short of demonstrating that we are, as a matter of 
course, moral, how much further must he be from demonstrating his further 
contention that we are growing more so? Progress is measurable only when 
attached to a previously stated teleology; it is impossible to chart the 
progress of a runner in a race without first knowing the location of the 
finish line. Without that knowledge, progress and regress, furtherance and 
errancy, are indistinguishable from one another. Likewise, given some 
previously determined ethical program, progress may indeed prove 
measurable, but only because the program provides a teleology against 
which to compare changes. It could be said, of course, that any movement 
away from a point of origin is progress of some sort, but when the goal is to 
chart a specific course toward greater morality, mere trajectory is not 
enough. It must be a trajectory toward some identifiable goal. Nevertheless, 
the notion that religion stands in the way of the natural progression of our 
moral faculty forms an integral part of not only his critique, but that of the 
other Horsemen as well. If, for example, we say that the intended end of 
morality is to make the good attainable, we are still driven back onto ethics 
to explain what we mean by "good." This, of course, is one of the enduring 
questions of philosophy, and it is Dawkins' contention that we are 

1p;0 Against the Irreligious Right 

demonstrably closer to having found the answer. Curiously, to support that 
claim, he is driven back on the sort of mystification that he deplores in 
religious thought. 

Unless we are able to treat the end of ethics as a foregone conclusion, 
progress and regress remain largely matters of perspective. Dawkins 
attempts to circumvent this limitation by treating the current state of ethical 
thought as one point on a linear progression, allowing him to chart the 
trajectory of morality as though on a graph. In other words, he simply 
judges the morality of previous eras by the standards of our own. He 
thereby privileges present norms, arguing that, "The shift is in a 
recognizably consistent direction, which most of us would judge an 
improvement." 20 Problems riddle that methodology, but the most prominent 
may be a form of the fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc, literally: 
"after this, therefore because of this." By that account, the end of moral 
progression is necessarily implied in the present state, but not because 
Dawkins has found a logical answer to the central question of how we know 
what is and is not moral. He has simply assumed that whatever is closest to 
us must, as a matter of course, be superior to whatever came before. 

In the place of logical justification, he proposes a mechanism to explain 
the as yet undemonstrated progressive direction of history. "In any society," 
he explains, "there exists a somewhat mysterious consensus, which changes 
over the decades, and for which it is not pretentious to use the German loan- 
word Zeitgeist (spirit of the times)." 21 If we interpret the word to mean 
nothing more than "common assent" it is at least plausible, though pitiably 
weak. Dawkins would hardly defer to popular opinion on the question of 
whether or not God exists, and he gives no compelling reason why we 
should be any more populist when it comes to ethical questions. More 
strikingly, Dawkins has staked his argument for moral progress on a concept 
that, coming from a professed physicalist, ought to astonish the reader. It 
would probably go too far to suggest that Dawkins holds the moral Zeitgeist 
to be a thing with independent existence. In that case, his moral Zeitgeist 
argument against religion would merely substitute one undemonstrated 
entity for another, replacing God with a spirit that is preferable only because 
it would presumably be subject to evolution. Without a more substantive 
clue from Dawkins, it may be that the best we can do is to envision a range 
of plausible interpretations that fill by degrees the gulf between Zeitgeist as 
a metaphor for common assent, and Zeitgeist as a kind of patron spirit. 

In the interests of taking his argument seriously, let us consider something 
close to the middle of the scale. Common assent is too obvious a fallacy; a 

20 TGD, 304 

21 TGD, 300-301 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 252 

literal spirit makes him subject to his own objections. To be useful in this 
context Zeitgeist must shoulder several burdens. It must be substantive 
enough to be discernible as more than mere abstraction; effective enough to 
result in palpable changes in conduct; persistent enough, and yet mutable 
enough, to make it subject to progressive change; pervasive enough to 
encompass the majority of those living in the age of its patronage; and yet 
fundamental enough to serve as a reliable arbiter of ethical truth. These 
requirements are interdependent. If we suppose, for example, that the moral 
Zeitgeist need not be any more substantive than mere abstraction, that 
supposition obliges us to account for how it could be, at the same time, 
effective, mutable, and fundamental. 

Many of the difficulties entailed by these requirements could perhaps be 
resolved in a worldview that allowed for the existence of spirits, but in the 
context of strict materialistic naturalism, the nature of such a Zeitgeist 
proves more difficult to assess. Dawkins himself leaves even the most basic 
question - what is the moral Zeitgeist! - frustratingly unresolved. "It is," he 
writes, "beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further 
into explaining why the Zeitgeist moves in its broadly concerted way. For 
my purposes it is enough that, as a matter of observed fact, it does move, 
and it is not driven by religion - and certainly not by scripture." 22 It may be 
considered ungenerous to suggest that his wholesale credulity for the 
Zeitgeist explanation is, after all, a product of that "amateur psychology and 
sociology." Given the logical problems raised by his advocacy of both it and 
the notion of steady moral Progress, it becomes positively necessary to ask 
whether they really are, as he claims, matters of "observed fact." 

Consider the evidence. He declares the century long spread of women's 
suffrage "a gauge of the shifting Zeitgeist"; so too is the decline of racism. 
He neglects to mention that the racial doctrines of the 19 th century were 
mostly an invention of 15 th and 16 th century Europeans attempting to justify 
their revival of institutional slavery. Women's suffrage may seem a more 
clear-cut instance of progress, but it makes sense primarily within the 
context of a democratic political system; viewed from the perspective of 
ancient Minoan, Berber, Basque, Mosuo, and Tuareg societies - all of which 
were to one extent or another matriarchal - the form of our political system 
would seem more remarkable than the fact of women's participation in it. 
Dawkins suggests that such variance counts as a statistical hiccup at best, 
"local and temporary setbacks" in the "sawtoothed" progression of history, 23 
but the point is that the apparent solidity of a moral Zeitgeist is similar to 

22 TGD, 308 

23 TGD, 307 

1^2 Against the Irreligious Right 

that of a rainbow: whether or not you see it at all depends on where you 
choose to stand and where you decline to look. 24 

Some sense of how much effort has gone into making that Zeitgeist seem 
plausible can be discerned when Dawkins favorably compares Hitler to 
Genghis Khan. Hitler, he will admit, likely had the higher body count, but 
somehow Dawkins feels that is mitigated by advances in technology - as 
though the very fact of having given genocide a methodology did not, in 
itself, constitute an innovation in immorality. But the final word for 
Dawkins is the Khan's reputation for sadism. "Hitler," Dawkins insists, 
"seems especially evil only by the more benign standards of our time." 25 
True, we necessarily "judge Hitler's degree of evil by the standards of 
today," but it is a mockery to call those standards more benign. Rather, our 
standards have changed precisely to the extent that Hitler's example 
confronts us with the mobilization of an entire society, otherwise 
recognizably civil, into an apparatus for the mechanical destruction of an 
entire people, not for simple material gain, nor from an excess of passion, 
nor even from an neurological inclination towards sadism, but rather in the 
service of nationalism, and in the pursuit of an ideal society. Precisely 
because major historical and philosophical shifts went into setting the stage 
for it, the Holocaust represents a peak of immorality to which Genghis 
Khan could never have aspired. 

Because it represents such a low moral ebb, softening our impression of 
the immorality of the Holocaust is necessary if Dawkins hopes to convince 
us of the morally progressive trend in history. Not only does he fail to 
establish that trend; when asked to explain how progressively higher morals 
emerge, he replies, "The onus is not on me to answer. For my purposes it is 
sufficient that they certainly have not come from religion." 26 It is impossible 
to avoid a touch of embarrassment at feeling it necessary to critique so 
palpably outdated and naive a notion as that of a progressive moral Zeitgeist, 
27 or to argue against the suggestion that there was nothing "especially evil" 
about the Holocaust. That a book which features those positions so 

24 The historical position Dawkins assumes in order to achieve the illusion is 
also discussed at the end of "The Flattening of Historical Perspective"; the 
debt his view owes to historical tradition is compassed in "The Heirs of La 
Coterie Holbachique." 

25 TGD, 304-305 

26 TGD, 306 

27 It should be noted that neither Herder - who was, like his intellectual 
predecessor Giambattista Vico, an historical fatalist - nor Hegel - with whom 
the term is most often associated - seem to have regarded Zeitgeist as 
necessarily progressive, only descriptive of the character of an age. 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 153 

prominently has made such an impact on the public discussion demonstrates 
precisely how short-sighted a Zeitgeist can be. It suggests that we are 
already able to see two of the most costly and fatal wars in history - fought 
by millions, spanning multiple continents and separated by a span of less 
than two decades - as mere glitches in an otherwise upward trend, when 
they might more reasonably indicate a moral decline. 


Neither Harris nor Hitchens espouse anything quite so crudely drawn as 
Dawkins' moral Zeitgeist, but the premise of a progressive moral consensus 
is implied by both. In God Is Not Great it appears mostly in the contrast 
between the moral scheme devised by stone age nomads, and what any 21 st 
schoolchild may be expected to know. Since, in Hitchens' view of history, 
our remote ancestors were simply doing the best they could with a limited 
intellectual and educational tools, that makes it just possible to interpret 
moral progress as a corollary of mental progress, much as the 1 9 th century 
anthropologists who influenced Freud did. 28 

Harris, at least, seems to have recognized the problems entailed by the 
attempt to derive an evolutionary moral basis that is not only descriptive but 
also prescriptive. The Moral Landscape finds him at pains to assure the 
reader that, "a scientific account of human values [...] is not the same as an 
evolutionary account." 29 His insistence on that point may derive from 
worries that an evolutionary account will open the door to moral relativism. 
To that end, he writes, 

If morality is simply an adaptive means of organizing social behavior 
and mitigating conflict, there "would be no reason to think that our 
current sense of right and "wrong "would reflect any deeper 
understanding about the nature of reality. Hence, a narrow focus 
explaining why people think and behave as they do can lead a person 
to find the idea of 'moral truth' literally unintelligible." 30 

Nevertheless, toward the end of the book, he writes, "Despite our perennial 
bad behavior, our moral progress seems to me unmistakable." 31 The next 

28 See "The Heirs of La Coterie Holbachique" for the line of discursive 

29 TML, 13 

30 TML, 50 

31 TML, 177 

i54 Against the Irreligious Right 

stage in that progress, as he would have it, is to restructure ethics as a 
branch of science. 

When Harris writes, "my approach is to generally make an end run 
around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic 
discussions of human values so inaccessible," 32 the passage proves telling in 
more ways than one. It is, in the first place, ironic that he should think it 
necessary to do so in a book that positively embraces academic discussions 
from other disciplines, not least of all his own doctoral thesis in 
neuroscience. In fact, the rhetorical strategy that makes his argument 
possible is premised on side-stepping not only the jargon, but also some of 
the core issues of ethical philosophy. He does so by eschewing the basic 
terms to which they pertain: good and ought. The first of those he demotes 
to a subsidiary position; the second he consigns to the waste bin. Without 
them, it is no longer clear that he is talking about what most of us would 
recognize as morality. 

That is particularly evident in the case of ought, which Harris dismisses 
as "an artificial and needlessly confusing way to think about moral 
choice." 33 Despite the philosophical coup it would represent were Harris to 
successfully dispense with ought altogether, the maneuver itself takes place 
almost entirely in a pair of endnotes. 34 It hinges, in the first place, on a 
confusion between contingent and categorical justification. By contingent, I 
mean that the reasons offered are justified by their tendency to promote a 
limited goal. That goal is typically expressed by some conditional 
statement, indicated by the presence of the word // A simple example would 
be the proposition, "If you do not wish to be hungry, you ought to eat 
breakfast," where the clause beginning with if is the condition on which the 
ought clause is predicated. 

In order to evade that burden, Harris argues that, "Asking why we 
'ought' to value well-being, makes even less sense than asking why we 
'ought' to be rational or scientific." The analogy is false. There are 
demonstrable, though contingent, reasons for practicing reason or science. 
Consider, for example, the claim, "T/'your goal is to make a model of the 
solar system that will allow you to accurately predict the next solar eclipse, 
you ought to be scientific about it." That argument requires a fairly complex 
demonstration, but at root it represents an extension of the basic form of 
contingent justification, "If you want x, you ought to do y." Contingent 
premises can, of course, be denied, even in the face of demonstration, by 

32 TML, 197, fn. 197 

33 TML, 38 

34 TML, 203-204, fn. 21 and fn. 22 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists ^55 

anyone stubborn enough to do so, but as a practical matter, a conditional 
argument is best proved by doing. 

We might even go so far as to describe the history of scientific method as 
an iterative process of contingent justification. Every time we successfully 
apply scientific method to a contingent problem, we further justify our 
preference for science as a mode of inquiry. By contrast, Harris attempts to 
sketch the outlines of a categorical justification - that is, justification that 
arises from the nature of the thing or category to which it belongs, rather 
than from its use in achieving some desired goal. "Scientific 'is' 
statements," he insists, "rest on implicit 'oughts' all the way down." To 
argue in favor of a scientific conclusion by reference to data is to "implicitly 
appeal to the values of empiricism and logic." He does not tell us how 
empiricism and logic came to be values unto themselves. They are more 
traditionally regarded as methods or methodological assumptions. We may 
value them for their practical utility, but in doing so we rely on contingent 
justification. The subtle shift by which he converts them into values recalls 
the historical process by which the philosophes converted the faculty reason 
into the ideal of Reason. We do well here to remember that The Moral 
Landscape belongs to a triptych of a books advocating an updated 
Rationalism. 35 

The unqualified use of ought in ethical philosophy is often used to imply 
categorical justification. That proves especially true of deontological ethics, 
but even a consequentialist ethics is justified with reference to what 
consequences we ought to seek. It is by no means clear how, without 
something like ought, there can be, as Harris repeatedly insists there are, 
right or wrong answers to questions of morality. Yet, perversely, it is on that 
very premise that he recommends letting "this metaphysical notion of 
'ought' fall away." In its place, "we will be left with a scientific picture of 
cause and effect." 36 Here again we find a shift away from a theory that 
prescribes conduct, and toward one that only describes the decision-making 
process. What remains is a form of behaviorism, not morality or ethics. Yet 
even the attempt to fit such a behaviorism into a scientific program requires 
at least the sort of prescriptive ought statements that figure in contingent 
justifications, e.g. //your goal as a biologist is to minimize the effects of 
dengue fever, then you ought to support programs that work towards the 
development of a vaccine. In any case, once we remove the question of 
what we as deliberative agents ought to do or ought to seek, the result is no 
longer recognizable as morality or ethics. Harris seems to recognize as 
much when he writes, "that science can, in principle, help us understand 

35 See "The Heirs of La Coterie Holbachique." 

36 TML, 204, fn. 22 

1^6 Against the Irreligious Right 

what we should do and should want," 37 though he neither explains how that 
differs from understanding what we ought to do and ought to want. It may 
be that he simply hopes to evade the philosophical burden imposed by 
Hume's is-ought problem by doing away with one term, ought, while 
employing another, should, that retains the same prescriptive sense. But that 
prescriptive sense is, after all, the real subject of Hume's critique. 

Ultimately, any ethics that deals only with the conditionals set by some 
other discipline (e.g. physics, economics, medicine) will be beholden to the 
goals of that discipline. To accept that ethics is subordinate to the sciences is 
to forfeit the capacity to use ethics to judge the goals of those sciences. The 
traditional task of ethics is that of finding non-contingent, logically 
compelling reasons for specific programs of conduct, and has been 
recognized as such at least since the Socratic dialogues of Plato. Given its 
role in ancient Greek ethics, Harris' diagnosis of the role of ought as 
"another dismal product of Abrahamic religion" requires a patently unlikely 
stretch of the imagination, and is best regarded as an offhand attempt to 
stoke the fires of his beloved zero-sum conflict between religion and 

In a footnote, 38 Harris marks a broader than usual territory for the latter: 

For the purposes of this discussion, I do not intend to make a hard 
distinction between "science" and other intellectual contexts in "which 
we discuss "facts" — e.g., history. [...] I think "science," therefore, 
should be considered a specialized branch of a larger effort to form 
true beliefs about events in our "world. 39 

This reconnects his inquiry to Hume's is-ought problem. Harris seems to 
interpret that challenge more strictly than Hume did, presenting it as the 
argument "that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how 
we ought to behave (morality)." 40 Strictly speaking, Hume's formulation 
does not declare it impossible to derive a statement of ought from a 
statement of is, and so, at least in principle, it may still be possible to found 
ethical theory on ontological verity. That said, a correct understanding of 

37 TML, 28 

38 TML, 195 fn. 2 

39 The second sentence connects the aims of The Moral Landscape to 
Harris' discussion of belief in The End of Faith, concerning which, see "The 
Diagnostics of Belief." 

40 TML, 10 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists l^y 

the problem burdens Harris with the responsibility for grounding 
prescriptive claims in a context of epistemic theory. 

That bad paraphrase of Hume reflects a general confusion that extends to 
Harris' treatment of the most influential of 20 th century ethical treatises, the 
Principia Ethica. 41 "Following Hume," Harris writes, 

the philosopher G. E. Moore declared that any attempt to locate 
moral truths in the natural "world "was to commit a 'naturalistic fallacy.' 
Moore argued that goodness could not be equated "with any property 
of human experience (e.g., pleasure, happiness, evolutionary fitness) 
because it "would always be appropriate to ask whether the property 
on offer "was itself good. 

This misses the mark in several important particulars. In the first place, no 
direct logical connection ties the naturalistic fallacy to Hume's is-ought 
problem. They burden the ethicist for different reasons. Mistaking the 
naturalistic fallacy for an elaboration of Hume's is-ought problem allows 
Harris to surreptitiously set Hume almost entirely aside, preferring to deal 
directly with Moore instead. 

To understand the naturalistic fallacy, it is necessary to begin with the 
premise that the principle subject of ethics, i.e. good, can never be defined 
in terms of something else. Any attempt to define the good as though it were 
a complex object betrays the definition as false, since "'good' is, in fact, 
except its converse 'bad,' the only simple object of thought which is 
peculiar to Ethics," 42 and must be so if the discipline hopes to avoid logical 
contradiction. In Moore's example, 

You can give a definition of a horse, because a horse has many 
different properties and qualities, all of which you can enumerate. 
But "when you have enumerated them all, "when you have reduced a 
horse to his simplest terms, you can no longer define those terms. 
They are simply something which you think of or perceive, and to 
anyone who cannot think of or perceive them, you can never, by any 
definition, make their nature known. 43 

41 1903 

42 Principia Ethica, l§5 

43 Principia Ethica, l§7 

158 Against the Irreligious Right 

Ultimately, "good" is recognizable only by its function; that is, by the 
quality we mean to attach to a thing, behavior, or goal when we say that it is 

Only having acknowledged that background may we also understand 
what Moore meant when he proposed the naturalistic fallacy. He explains it 

It may be true that all things "which are good are also something else, 
just as it is true that all things "which are yellow produce a certain kind 
of vibration in the light. And it is a fact, that Ethics aims at 
discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things 
"which are good. But far too many philosophers have thought that 
"when they named those other properties they "were actually defining 
good; that these properties, in fact, were simply not "other," but 
absolutely and entirely the same "with goodness. 44 

It is not then, as Harris supposes, that an ethicist commits the fallacy any 
time she attempts to locate moral truth in the world. In part, he seems to 
have been led astray by Moore's use of the term "naturalistic," an 
unfortunate name for the mistake he had in mind, since it has often been 
interpreted to mean that the good must belong to the realm of metaphysics. 
In point of fact, Moore does not consider good a natural object, but is quick 
to qualify that, "Even if it were a natural object, that would not alter the 
nature of the fallacy nor diminish its importance one whit." 45 It is a mistake, 
then, to think that Moore's assertion of a naturalistic fallacy necessarily 
means that a metaphysical ethics is preferable to a naturalistic ethics. On his 
own account, both naturalistic and metaphysical ethical systems may be 
subject to the fallacy, 46 which is "naturalistic" only in that it involves 
misidentifying the nature of good. 

Harris attempts to illustrate the fallacy by writing that, "If, for instance, 
we were to say that goodness is synonymous with whatever gives people 
pleasure, it would still be possible to worry whether a specific instance of 
pleasure is actually good. This is known as Moore's 'open question 
argument.'" 47 In fact, the naturalistic fallacy and the open question 
argument are related, but distinct. Moore himself illustrates the latter by 
showing that "in some cases there is a conflict between the common 

44 Principia Ethica, l§10 

45 Principia Ethica, l§12 

46 Principia Ethica, ll§24 & §25 
4 ? TML, 10 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists i§g 

judgment that genius is good, and the common judgment that health is 
good." 48 That being so, they cannot both be good in themselves, and so 
something else must account for their goodness. No doubt the premises that 
lead to that conflict can be disputed, but the example is only meant to 
illustrate the sort of conflict that arises when the association between good 
and some property purported to be good is left open. 

The argument itself arises as a necessary consequence of any attempt to 
assign the meaning of good to some object (natural or otherwise) not 
previously identified as good. So long as it remains logically possible to ask 
whether or not x really is good, the question remains "open." The question 
is only "closed" when the structure of the definition makes it nonsensical to 
ask whether x really is good. Harris' example - the proposition that 
"goodness is synonymous with whatever gives people pleasure" - does, in 
fact, remain open, simply because it remains possible to ask whether what 
gives people pleasure really is good in itself. 49 That preserves the possibility 
of the sort of conflict we see in Moore's example. If, for example, we were 
also to stipulate that good is whatever gives people most control over their 
own faculties, then we might well find the two in conflict, since 
drunkenness may give pleasure at the expense of self-control. 

The important distinction to bear in mind is that the Harris' formula falls 
prey to the naturalistic fallacy, not because it leaves the question open, but 
because it inadvertently identifies the good as both a means and an end. The 
open question argument only suggests the fallacy. Explicitly, Harris' 
formula locates good not in pleasure, but in the category of objects that give 
pleasure. But when asked why those objects are synonymous with 
goodness, the obvious answer is, "because they give people pleasure." To 
say that pleasure is the goal of ethics is to say that pleasure is good. 
Therefore, the premise that "goodness is synonymous with whatever gives 
people pleasure" translates into "good is synonymous with whatever leads 
to good." It is precisely because such formulae, as definitions, seem 
consistently to unravel into nonsense of this sort that Moore proposed the 

48 Phncipia Ethica, ll§27; the illustration depends upon the premises i) that a 
purely scientific (as opposed to ethical) definition of health will hinge on the 
assessment of normalcy, and ii) that genius is defined by its deviation from 
the norm. It follows that genius is, by definition, unhealthy; ergo, if genius is 
good, that good is in conflict with the good of health, since genius is also 

49 In a dialogue that anticipates much of Principia Ethica - the Philebus - 
Plato concludes that the variability of pleasure likewise disqualifies it as the 
exclusive good. All we can say for sure of pleasure is that it is pleasant; any 
goodness that adheres to it must be incidental to that intrinsic nature. 

160 Against the Irreligious Right 

naturalistic fallacy. Harris' apparent failure to recognize what Moore 
actually contributed to the practice of ethical philosophy has left him 
unprepared to avoid such constructions. 


Most of the contradictions plaguing The Moral Landscape proceed from 
Harris' failure to take seriously what Moore describes as the central 
problem of ethics, the nature of good. We could, if we chose, replace 
"good" with some equivalent term, and a great many attempts to resolve the 
persistent difficulties of ethics have hinged on doing just that. But to any 
question of why we ought to behave thus, the answer will ultimately be 
reducible to the form, "because it is good to do so"; to the question of why 
we ought to value this rather than that, the answer will ultimately be 
reducible to the form, "because this is good, and that is not as good." That is 
not to say that we cannot with a high degree of fidelity translate "good" 
from its adjectival form into equivalent, but non-adjectival, language. If we 
were to declare, "charity is good," we could perhaps translate that into the 
equivalent declaration that, "one ought to be charitable." But when asked, 
"why ought one be charitable?" any answer we give will ultimately revert 
back to the adjectival form, i.e. "because charity is good." That may seem 
like an invitation to play ultimately meaningless semantic games, but 
understanding the act of translating good into roughly equivalent language 
proves crucial in light of Harris' construction of a moral landscape, as will 
be explained in due course. 

If, then, morality and ethics represent the attempt to answer the question, 
"what ought to be done?" then "good" is the most promising answer, but its 
value in ethical thought is roughly algebraic. In some sense, it is only a 
predicted value. Much as modern physics concerns itself with inquiring into 
the nature of predicted values, like the Higgs Boson and parallel universes, 
the defining problem of all ethics since Socrates has been the inquiry into 
the nature of good. Even the difference between consequentialism and 
deontology can be rendered in terms of where each locates the notion of 
good - in consequences, and in rules, respectively. Most attempts to bypass 
the centrality of good can be shown to translate back into equivalent 
language, either with no loss of meaning or with an appreciable increase in 

It is, then, of no small consequence that Harris has attempted to 
reconstruct the entire field of moral inquiry on a new foundation, that of 
"well-being." In light of the preceding, we shall want to know how well- 
being differs from good, as well as why we should prefer one over the other. 
It could be argued that nearly the whole of The Moral Landscape is devoted 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 161 

to answering the latter question. Put briefly, it is by elevating the notion of 
well-being, even above the traditional status of good, that Harris proposes to 
construct a science of universal morality. "Human and animal well being are 
natural phenomenon," he insists. "As such, they can be studied, in principle, 
with the tools of science and spoken about with greater or lesser 
precision." 50 

Before we can do that, however, we will need to know what is meant by 
well-being. Since The Moral Landscape declines to frame it in precise 
terms, a process of elimination will be needed to narrow down the field. 
Well-being could be, first of all, nothing more than a synonym for good, 
perfectly comparable in every important regard. In fact, Harris sometimes 
employs the term as though they were equivalent. It seems unlikely, though, 
that he proposed well-being as an exact stand in for good, since perfect 
synonymity would accomplish none of the things Harris intends for his 
ethical scheme - such as rendering it sufficiently descriptive to qualify as a 
science. If well-being is to resolve the is-ought problem, it must bring 
something to the table not already encompassed by good. 

Yet Harris often talks about well-being as though it were just that. "It 
seems uncontroversial," he writes, "to say that a change that leaves 
everyone worse off, by any rational standard, can be reasonably called 
'bad,' if this word is to have any meaning at all." 51 In fact, it must be 
uncontroversial by definition, since "worse" is only a comparative form of 
the word "bad." As such, the formula proves nothing that it has not already 
assumed. Roughly half of Harris' strategy for preserving the possibility of 
moral truth is built on the maneuver of front-loading the very values he 
hopes to discover; the other half resides in declaring it impossible to 
imagine it any other way. A basic familiarity with grammar will show that 
he mostly only uses "well" as the adverbial form of the adjective "good." 
He seems close to recognizing their near interchangeability when he writes 
that, "it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is 
'good.'" 52 As often as not, it would only be translating well-being into 
equivalent language to describe it as "the state of being appropriately valued 
as good." 

That transitivity proves to be of the first consequence to Harris' solution 
to the challenges outlined by Principia Ethica. "If we define 'good'," he 
writes, "as that which supports well-being, as I will argue we must, the 
regress initiated by Moore's 'open question argument' really does stop." 53 It 

50 TML, 41-42 

51 TML, 39 

52 TML, 12 

53 TML, 12 

162 Against the Irreligious Right 

would, in fact, require some effort to leave the question more open. If his 
formula amounted to good = well-being, that would, it could be argued, 
effectively close the question, since well-being would then only translate 
good into a state description, making it impossible to reasonably question 
whether or not good really is well-being. Rather, according to Harris' 
formula, good = x, where x is whatever results in well-being; x cannot, then, 
also be well-being, and thus good £ well-being. Even then, good = x leaves 
the definition open to exactly the sort of conflict illustrated by Moore's 
health/genius example. In a region where over-population leads to a great 
deal of suffering, for example, x could be some disease that reduces 
population levels. Staying true to Harris' formula, then, we would have to 
say that disease is, at least in that case, good - except that we may also 
clearly see that the same disease would be anything but good to those parts 
of the population it has served to reduce. Thus, though it may be possible in 
some cases to describe "that which supports well-being" as good, we cannot 
define good as "that which supports well-being" without inviting logical 

And contradictions of that sort do, in fact, crop up in Harris' consideration 
of well-being. To the rhetorical question, "Are all human lives equivalent?" 
he answers, 

No. I have no problem admitting that certain people's lives are more 
valuable than mine (I need only imagine a person whose death "would 
create much greater suffering and prevent much greater happiness). 
However, it also seems quite rational for us to collectively act as though 
all human lives "were equally valuable. Hence, most of our laws and 
social institutions generally ignore differences between people. I 
suspect that this is a very good thing 54 

This strongly suggests that well-being can be trumped by some other moral 
value - e.g. good - that has otherwise remained covert. The more damning 
problem, then, is not the open question argument, but that Harris' definition 
of good presents an almost quintessential instance of the naturalistic fallacy. 
The definition he offers translates into, "good is that which supports the 
state of being appropriately valued as good." The repetition of "good" 
betrays how he has mistaken the properties that attend the good for the 
nature of good itself. 

We can, in fact, see the effects of that confusion in the way The Moral 
Landscape sometimes treats well-being as the product of good, and 
sometimes treats it as synonymous with good. Thus, to justify the claim that 

54 TML, 199 fn. 8 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 263 

we can dismiss the objections of psychopaths on no stronger grounds than 
that their opinions are simply not worth considering, Harris argues, "It is 
absolutely clear that, whatever they might believe about what they are 
doing, psychopaths are seeking some form of well-being (excitement, 
ecstasy, feelings of power, etc.), but because of their neurological and social 
deficits, they are doing a very bad job of it." 55 Astute readers of Plato will 
recognize the argument from Protagoras, where it is used to demonstrate 
that those who appear to prefer some evil to the good are simply seeking 
after what they mistakenly take to be a greater good. Harris' adaptation of 
the argument works so long as we accept well-being as a synonym for good, 
but if we have already followed him in defining good as subordinate to 
well-being, it makes no sense to talk of mistaking well-being for 
excitement, ecstasy, or feelings of power. 

Psychopathy represents the sort of extreme example that Harris favors 
throughout his books. It would be easy to interpret his reliance on such 
extremes as nothing more than a fondness for hyperbole, except that they 
also play a part in obscuring the relationship between good and well-being. 
While it may be true that "no one wants utter, interminable misery," that 
may be only because we find it impossible to find any good in the total 
absence of well-being, and does not mean that good and well-being are 
synonymous apart from that scenario. When we insist on dealing with them 
in the middle degrees of experience, apart from an abstraction like "the 
worst possible misery for everyone" 56 it grows increasingly difficult to 
maintain a coherent notion of well-being that is not judged according to 
some distinct conception of good. 

Another possibility, though not so promising, is that well-being is 
synonymous with health. Harris raises that possibility himself by his 
analogies, but he stops short of definitively identifying the two with one 
another. As well he should, since to do so would undermine his assertion 
that well-being can be relied upon as the sole arbiter of moral value. Health 
is a diagnostic term, without independent moral value. Moore goes so far as 
to insist that we calibrate our assessment of health with a prior judgment 
concerning what is good. We can say that it is moral to seek our own health 
and the health of others, but a narrow focus on health alone tends, as 
Nietzsche well knew, to eliminate moral categories altogether. 

Harris fails to explain why we should not consider the two exactly 
equivalent. In fact, he presents the analogy as though it altogether excuses 
him from the need for defining well-being at all. "The concept of 'well- 
being,' like the concept of 'health,' is truly open for revision and 

55 TML, 204-205, fn. 24 

56 TML, 41 

164 Against the Irreligious Right 

discovery," 57 he argues. The suggestion that the ambiguity of the one term 
should justify the ambiguity of the other implies a categorical relation 
between the them. If nothing else, that leaves open the possibility that both 
terms could be revised into perfect congruence with one another. But can 
we accept at face value the claim that the concept of health is "truly open 
for revision?" It seems to me that it is perfectly possible to give the concept 
of health a resilient, enduring definition, and that what actually changes 
over time is our understanding of what promotes health. In fact, those 
changes would be incomprehensible were they not undergirded by a 
consistent notion of what is meant by "health." 

Would it not, for example, be consistent with most, if not all, biological 
uses of the term, past and present, to say that health is the state optimal for 
ensuring persistent bodily function in living organisms? To test the 
resilience of that definition, consider the practice of amputation. To 
amputate a leg may seem, by that definition, categorically unhealthy, since 
that portion of the body will neither continue to function, nor remain part of 
a living organism. But if the leg is gangrenous, then amputation may fall 
within the purview of health, since that will be the optimal way, given the 
circumstances, to ensure the continued function of the rest of the body. 
Leaving the leg intact may, in the short term, provide a broader range of 
function, but amputating to prevent the spread of gangrene will better 
ensure the continued function of more of the body over a longer period of 
time. When Harris argues that, "Our notion of 'health' may one day be 
defined by goals that we cannot currently entertain with a straight face (like 
the goal of spontaneously regenerating a lost limb)," 58 he is actually talking 
about changes in standards, not definitions. Those standards, though, are 
premised on a largely unchanging definition, and we could not recognize 
such changes in standards without some such prior conception. 

Harris' analogy, then, does nothing to excuse his omission of a proper 
definition of well-being. Moreover, his refusal to provide one renders 
dubious his suggestion that science could be called in to track changes in 
our standard for well-being, since those standards would only be 
comprehensible in terms of a definition that remains valid in spite of such 
changes. As such, there can be no genuine continuity between differing 
definitions, and thus no real progress, only wholesale revisions and 
unresolvable conflict. But that, as we shall consider presently, may be just 
the result Harris had in mind. 

Finally, we may reject the identification of well-being with health on 
ethical grounds. If, in the final analysis, the only things meant to distinguish 

57 TML, 34 

58 TML, 35-36 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 165 

health and well-being are their names and the moral value Harris attaches to 
the latter, the moral landscape again risks entailing the sort of contradiction 
suggested by Moore's open question argument. Harris writes, "The 
distinction between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and 
consequential as any we make in science." 59 Though I suspect that some 
doctors might disagree with Harris' assessment, we may put aside for now 
the question of whether or not that distinction really proves as clear as he 
supposes. The more prickly question is whether or not Harris would be 
willing to entertain a conception of health that encompassed death as a 
viable alternative to life. What would he say, for example, if someone were 
to argue that it is healthier to die on one's own terms than to live another 
century by taking a drug that will radically inhibit their moral sense? It 
could defensibly be argued that a voluntary natural death would be the 
moral choice, drawing it into direct conflict with the premise that good is 
reducible to a death-averse conception of health. On the bases of all these 
objections, we may say that the analogy to health does more to confuse the 
issues than it does to clarify them 

If well-being is neither synonymous with good, nor analogous to health, 
there remains a third option available to anyone who hopes to maintain its 
value as the pivot of an ethical theory. Earlier I wrote that the elevation of 
well-being to the central issue of ethical inquiry prompts us to ask both how 
well-being differs from good, and why we should prefer one over the other. 
Harris provides one answer when he writes that, "The moment we begin 
thinking about morality in terms of well-being, it becomes remarkably easy 
to discern a moral hierarchy across human societies." 60 This follows from 
the premise, "that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being 
than others." 61 It would seem that this is more than an unintended 
consequence, and part of my suggestion here is that Harris has proposed his 
moral landscape specifically for the purpose of grounding judgments about 
other cultures in scientific authority. In fact, to call it a "moral landscape" 
suggests - as did one of the slides Harris presented when he first introduced 
the term 62 - that it possesses something it manifestly does not: a third 
dimension. The book describes it in strictly two dimensional terms, 
suggestive of a cross-section rather than a landscape. In the concluding 

59 TML, 12 

60 TML, 60 

61 TML, 43 

62 In a talk given at the February 2010 Technology, Entertainment, Design 
(TED) Conference, entitled "Science can answer moral questions," and 
accessible at 

sam harris science can show what s riqht.html 

166 Against the Irreligious Right 

chapter we read that, "One of the virtues of thinking about a moral 
landscape, the heights of which remain to be discovered, is that it frees us 
from these semantic difficulties. Generally speaking, we need only worry 
about what it means to move 'up' as opposed to 'down.'" 63 On the whole, 
the term "moral hierarchy" seems a more accurate evocation of the scheme 
Harris presents. 

That two-dimensionality is likely responsible for the accusations of 
cultural imperialism leveled by many of his critics. At times, Harris even 
codifies cultural differences as inhabiting a quasi-evolutionary divide. Thus, 
in discussing his own moral indignation over the overtures made to his wife 
by a would-be suitor, he writes that, 

there are many different "ways for an ape to respond to the fact that 
other apes find his wife desirable. Had this happened in a traditional 
honor culture, the jealous husband might beat his "wife, drag her to 
the gym, and force her to identify her suitor so that he could put a 
bullet in his brain. [...] There are many communities on earth where 
men commonly behave this "way, and hundreds of millions of boys 
are beginning to run this ancient software on their brains even now 

The alternating animal and mechanical natures he attributes to what he 
regards as a morally inferior culture are contrasted in the next paragraph by 
his own agency and moral superiority. Hence, "my own mind shows some 
precarious traces of civilization: one being that I view the emotion of 
jealousy with suspicion. What is more, I happen to love my wife and 
genuinely want her to be happy, and this entails a certain empathetic 
understanding of her point of view." 64 Clearly, Harris feels none of the 
compulsion "to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western 
colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism" that, in his capacity as armchair 
psychologist, he attributes to moral relativists. 

The developmental difference he locates between his own reaction and 
that which he attributes to members of other cultures naturally recalls the 
clash of civilizations described in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian 
Nation. "I found myself," opines one of The Moral Landscape's 
reviewers, 65 "wishing for less of the polemic against religion, which recurs 
often and takes up one entire chapter - he has had two bites of that apple 

63 TML, 183 

64 TML, 51-52 

65 "Science Knows Best," Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Times, 
October 1, 2010. 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 167 

already, and will soon be reduced to gnawing at the core." This misses the 
point. There is no evidence that Harris' goal of resettling morality on a 
purely scientific foundation was ever distinct from his polemic against 
religion. "The defense one most often hears for belief in God," he claims, 
"is not that there is compelling evidence for His existence, but that faith in 
Him is the only reliable source of meaning and moral guidance. Mutually 
incompatible religious traditions now take refuge behind the same non 
sequitur." 66 If the polemic of his previous work recurs in The Moral 
Landscape, it may be because the author is less interested in changing the 
way we derive ethical conclusions than in depriving religion of its last 

The same reviewer writes that Harris "ends up endorsing is something 
very like utilitarianism," but this, too, strikes me as a mistake - though, 
based on the frequency with which critics have made the association, an 
apparently quite common one. Rather, the scheme presented by The Moral 
Landscape has more in common with American pragmatism, the school of 
thought first suggested by Charles Sanders Pierce in the 1870s, developed 
by William James, and represented more recently by such luminaries as 
Richard Rorty and W. V O. Quine. 67 Consider, for example, one defense 
that Harris marshals in defense of the moral landscape, to the effect that, 

anyone "who has an alternative set of moral axioms is free to put 
them forward, just as they are free to define "science" any way they 
"want. But some definitions "will be useless, or worse — and many 
current definitions of "morality" are so bad that we can know, far in 
advance of any breakthrough in the sciences of mind, that they have 
no place in a serious conversation about how we should live in this 
world. 68 

Their designation as "useless or worse" suggests that Harris intends to judge 
any proposed ethical inquiry by the practical ends to which it may be put - a 
recognizably pragmatic standard. Thus, the premise that values are facts 
about the well-being of conscious creatures aligns with the pragmatist view 
that ethical theory ought to be concerned with ensuring the consistency of 
programs that we, as ethical agents, decide upon. As such, the moral 
landscape figures as a tool in what Rorty called "the search for adjustment, 

66 TML, 6-7 

67 Dennett was a pupil of Quine's, and has cited James as an "intellectual 
hero"; cf. BtS, 20. 

68 TML, 41 

168 Against the Irreligious Right 

and in particular that sort of adjustment to our fellow humans which we call 
'the search for acceptable justification and eventual agreement.'" 69 

Given that similarity, the effort to find some prior logical foundation for 
the concept of well-being may prove misguided. Harris' argument simply 
does not work that way, no matter how sincerely he insists that it must. 
Therein lies the answer to how well-being is defined - it is left quite simply, 
and quite deliberately, undefined. Under his guidance, "well-being" 
becomes a kind of short-hand for whatever value he wishes to place there. 
Ultimately, all that justifies it is the promise of the practical use to which it 
may be put. That allows Harris to insist that, "If morality is a system of 
thinking about (and maximizing) the well-being of conscious creatures like 
ourselves, many people's moral concerns must be immoral," 70 a point 
belabored on nearly every page. By refusing to give a hard and fast 
definition of well-being, Harris forces debate away from the dispute over 
how to define it, and down other avenues. By brokering in science, he hopes 
for that sort of adjustment to our fellow humans that will result in a 
"universal morality." Dennett seems to have a similar project in mind when, 
in "Some More Questions About Science," 7 ' he argues for the acceptance of 
terms of discussion favorable to the thesis of his book. Of the six books 
covered in these essays, Breaking the Spell has the least to say about 
morality. Yet it remains possible to see the influence on Harris' quasi- 
pragmatism of the ethical philosophies in Dennett's orbit, so to speak. There 
is, of course, direct acknowledgment of the help tendered by Dennett in 
reviewing early drafts of The Moral Landscape , 72 but it also seems to me 
that when Harris cursorily dismisses his critics as not having taken the 
subject of morality seriously, 73 he is only amping up the rhetoric in 
Dennett's arguments to the effect that some beliefs "really cannot be given 
any consideration in the ongoing investigation" over religion and 
morality. 74 

Ironically, the association with pragmatist philosophy proves fatal to 
Harris' design, which is meant to oppose not only religious accounts of 
morality, but also the moral relativism that the Horsemen have unanimously 
decried. The pragmatist position described by a philosopher like Richard 
Rorty is relativistic to the core, rejecting the supposition "that moral 

69 "Ethics Without Principles," published in Philosophy and Social Hope, 
Richard Rorty (Penguin:1999), 72 
7 ° TML, 87 

71 BtS, Appendix B, 359-378 

72 See the Acknowledgements, TML 194 

73 Cf. e.g. TML, 204 fn. 22; and so on. 

74 BtS, 359 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists 169 

progress is at least in part a matter of increasing moral knowledge, 
knowledge about something independent of our social practices: something 
like the will of God or the nature of humanity." 75 This erodes Harris' goal of 
rooting moral knowledge in scientific inquiry, since it ultimately suggests 
we need not derive ought from some empirical fact at all. No doubt the 
pragmatist rejection of a correspondence theory of truth would horrify 
Harris. And yet, by casting values in the role of facts in pursuance of well- 
being, Harris has presented a science of morality that functions along 
precisely those lines. 

It is of a similar program that Rorty wrote, "This picture of moral 
progress makes us resist Kant's suggestion that morality is a matter of 
reason, and makes us sympathetic to Hume's suggestion that it is a matter of 
sentiment." 76 Harris' extensive effort to demonstrate "that a clear boundary 
between facts and values simply does not exist," 77 ultimately works against 
his moral realism, since his emphasis on establishing that they "arise from 
similar processes at the level of the brain" proves only the subjectivity of 
fact, not the facticity of value. So much the worse for objective facts. But 
the real consequence, to which he is apparently blind, is that dissolving that 
boundary, not only in neurological practice but also in ethical principle, 
necessarily relocates the foundation of his moral theory in Rorty 's "matter 
of sentiment." 


In order to see more clearly the pragmatic vein in The Moral Landscape, 
consider the three projects Harris places under the purview of a scientific 
inquiry into morality : 

1. We can explain why people tend to follow certain patterns of 
thought and behavior (many of them demonstrably silly and harmful) 
in the name of "morality." 

2. We can think more clearly about the nature of moral truth and 
determine "which patterns of thought and behavior we should follow 
in the name of "morality." 

75 "Ethics Without Principles," 84 

76 "Ethics Without Principles," 87 

77 TML, 11 

lyo Against the Irreligious Right 

3. We can convince people who are committed to silly and harmful 
patterns of thought and behavior in the name of "morality" to break 
these commitments and to live better lives. 78 

According to Harris, science has so far restricted itself to the first project. 
His aim is to demonstrate that the second and third rightly belong to the 
province of science, but the order of priority he envisions says a great deal 
about his goals. On the following page, he writes, 

I happen to believe that the third project — changing people's ethical 
commitments — is the most important task facing humanity in the 
twenty-first century. Nearly every other important goal — from 
combating climate change, to fighting terrorism, to curing cancer, to 
saving the "whales — falls within its purview. Of course, moral 
persuasion is a difficult business, but it strikes me as especially 
difficult if we haven't figured out in what sense moral truths exist. 
Hence, my main focus is on project 2. 

This implies not that others should be persuaded because we already have a 
clear sense of where their moral systems have gone wrong, but that the 
project of determining how their moral systems is justified on a priori 
grounds by the goals Harris (or the Western scientific community) has 
decided upon in advance. For someone apparently committed to moral 
realism, he could hardly have put those priorities in more disarray. 

In hope of explaining so much confusion, we may observe that Harris has 
taken a buffet approach to the field of ethics. The work of 3,000 years of 
philosophy stands arrayed before him, and he ladles onto his moral scheme 
only the elements that appeal to his taste. This morsel he takes in order to 
maintain moral realism; that, in order to dispense with the if-ought problem. 
When Kant is useful for his purposes, Kant is correct; when Kant stands 
opposed, he may be dismissed out of hand. It does not seem to occur to him 
that each fact of ethical philosophy entails consequences that may entangle 
his scheme in self-contradiction. Thus, when he needs it to overcome the 
burdens proposed by Hume and Moore, he talks of well-being as though it 
were synonymous with good; when he needs it to serve as a pretext for 
denying moral authority to religion, he talks of it in strictly pragmatic terms. 
He comes closest to reconciling those two incompatible uses when he 
borrows most from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, though he begs off the 

78 TML, 49 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists iyi 

influence, claiming "not to pay any attention to Aristotle." 79 The reason, 
perhaps, is that the Nicomachean Ethics ultimately spells out an aretaic 
ethics (that is, one premised on the cultivation of personal virtue) rather 
than a consequentialist one. Harris is explicit in stating that he does not 
wish to be "beholden to the quirks of the great man's philosophy," and yet 
does not stop short of adopting Aristotle's aretaic proposal to judge the 
ethical value of the whole pattern of a person's life. Harris considers it 
"indisputable that most of what we do with our lives is predicated on there 
being nothing more important, at least for ourselves and those closest to us, 
than the difference between the Bad Life and the Good Life." 80 Those two 
poles he illustrates by presenting two vignettes: the Bad Life being 
represented by the victim of third-world conflict; the Good Life, by the 
beneficiary of first-world affluence. True to form, Harris is hyperbolic in his 
portrayal of the worse alternative, and the "young widow" of his Bad Life is 
little more than Aristotle's exemplar, Priam, stripped of all complexity and 
updated to modern terms. Here, the confusion is most palpable: good, as 
Harris defined it, is whatever stands in support of well-being; by focusing 
on well-being, we hope to attain the Good Life. The circularity 
demonstrates the extent to which Harris has failed to evade the burdens of 
the discipline. 

These considerations do not, unfortunately, exhaust the confusion that 
prevails in The Moral Landscape . For example: in light of Harris' insistence 
that, "Where our intentions come from [...] and what determines their 
character in every instance, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective 
terms," what could it mean to say "I intend." His discussion of determinism 
(meant to dispel a straw man version of the argument for free will) calls into 
question my ownership of the intention. Might it not follow that I belong to 
the intention, rather than vice versa? If, as the otherwise needless section on 
"The Illusion of Free Will" 81 seems to suggest, / intend means only that I 
feel as though the intention was mine, then how can it mean anything at all 
to insist, as he does, that, "The freedom to do what one intends, and not do 
otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was"? 

Here, as elsewhere, Harris seems to have overlooked the significance of 
such considerations for his project, supposing that these questions apply 
primarily to "the religious notion of 'sin' and our enduring commitment to 
retributive justice." He writes, "Any scientific developments that threatened 
our notion of free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for 
their bad behavior in question." But having failed to reconnect choice to 

79 TML, 195 fn. 9 

80 TML, 16 

81 TML, 102-106 

1^2 Against the Irreligious Right 

intention, he jeopardizes the entire status of ethical philosophy. If we are not 
credibly capable of choosing our behavior, then prescription is moot, and 
morality nothing more than a guise for behaviorism. Harris' unsubstantiated 
insistence that, "Of course, there is a distinction between voluntary and 
involuntary actions," only serves to emphasize the difficulties he has 
opened and failed to close. His solution to those difficulties is to argue that, 
"Judgements of responsibility [...] depend upon the overall complexion of 
one's mind, not on the metaphysics of mental cause and effect." 82 In the 
case of a person who commits some radical immorality, "we need not have 
any illusions about a casual [sic] agent living within the human mind to 
condemn such a mind as unethical, negligent, or even evil, and therefore 
liable to occasion further harm." 83 That amounts to no longer regarding 
persons as moral agents, but rather as cognitive programs, judged according 
to how they have been inscribed rather than what they do. 84 

Nor is it clear that the sort of science of morality Harris proposes could 
avoid such a pass. In order to isolate moral truth within the purview of 
neuroscience, the bulk of the chapter "Good and Evil" shifts away from the 
purely rational basis for morality suggested by the preceding chapter, in 
favor of "intuitions" and emotional responses. Moral realism, in this 
context, means constraining moral categories to a substrate of cognitive 
activities, and in particular, those that will be susceptible of neurological 
classification. "Evil" thus becomes a particular arrangement (or, rather, 
disarrangement) of the brain, one that can be "cured" by seeing to it "that 
every relevant change in the human brain can be made cheaply, painlessly, 
and safely." Thus, "The cure for psychopathy can be put directly into the 
food supply like vitamin D. Evil is now nothing more than a nutritional 
deficiency." 85 Yet, from another perspective, 86 a biological cure for evil 
would be synonymous with a cure for moral choice. An actual cure for 
psychopathy would not eliminate the person's desire to prosper through 
immoral behavior, but rather allow her to choose good in spite of that 
desire. But once subordinated to the imperatives of a discipline like 
neuroscience, ethics will necessarily tend to construe morality in terms of 
normative states, and immorality in terms of abnormal pathologies. The 
logic of a medical science will dictate that those abnormal states require 

82 TML, 107 

83 TML, 108 

84 For examples of how that might play out, see "The Diagnostic of Belief." 

85 TML, 109 

86 Like that expressed in A Clockwork Orange, both the book by Anthony 
Burgess (1962) and the film by Stanley Kubrick (1971). 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists iyg 

correction, even if such correction comes at the expense of the sort of 
agency that gives moral choice its character. 

Unsurprisingly, Harris endorses the pathology of evil as "progress away 
from religious metaphysics." 87 That diagnosis would prove untenably ironic 
should the ultimate source of his own conviction concerning the moral 
centrality of well-being prove to arise not from a consideration of the 
implications of biology, but rather from "spirituality" or "mysticism." 
Harris uses those words begrudgingly, claiming that neither "captures the 
reasonableness and profundity of the possibility that we must now consider: 
that there is a form of well-being that supersedes all others, indeed, that 
transcends the vagaries of experience itself." 88 Specifically he has in mind 
"Buddhism (e.g., the Dzoghen teachings of the Vajrayana) and Hinduism 
(e.g., the teachings of Advaita Vedanta), as well as many years spent 
practicing various techniques of meditation." 89 Those traditions, he asserts, 
"offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic 
freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma." The central 
methodology cited by Harris is that of meditation, by which he means "any 
means whereby our sense of 'self - of subject/object dualism in perception 
and cognition - can be made to vanish, while consciousness remains vividly 
aware of the continuum of existence." 90 By some such technique, a person 
may discover that "the failure to recognize thoughts as thoughts, moment 
after moment, is what gives each of us the feeling that we call 'I,' and this is 
the string upon which all our states of suffering and dissatisfaction are 
strung." Subject/object duality is made to disappear - or, at least, 
cognizance of it - "as will the fundamental difference between conventional 
states of happiness and suffering." 

Whether or not any of this proves true is not the issue; it would certainly 
go beyond the scope of this essay to embark on a critique of the traditions of 
Buddhism or Hinduism. The point is simply that Harris seems to have 
derived the defining principle of his science of morality from a decidedly 
spiritual source. "Once the selflessness of consciousness has been 
glimpsed," he tells us, "spiritual life can be viewed as a matter of freeing 
one's attention more and more so that this recognition can become 
stabilized. This is where the connection between spirituality and ethics 

87 TML, 110 

88 TEoF, 205 

89 TEoF, 293-296 fn. 12; the bulk of this footnote, one of the longest in the 
book, is given over to explaining why, in Harris' opinion, no other spiritual or 
mystical tradition can hope to claim Buddhism's "preeminence as a system 
of spiritual instruction." 

90 TEoF, 217-220 

174 Against the Irreligious Right 

becomes inescapable." He accompanies all of this, as he is prone to do, with 
the repeated assurance that it "is an empirical claim, not a matter of 
philosophical speculation," but if so then he is surely using a sense of 
empirical that is largely alien to scientific method. "Scientists," he insists, 
"are making their first attempts to test claims of this sort, but every 
experienced meditator has tested them already." That seems very much to 
have been the order of priority for Harris, and we may well doubt that 
science is capable of drawing from such experiences the same conclusions 
that someone trained in Buddhist meditation would - unless, like Harris, 
you construe science "broadly" as pertaining to the entire spectrum of facts, 
and regard facts as indistinguishable from values. 

Here we arrive at an unresolved issue that plagues the Horsemen at their 
most rationalistic: how may something like the traditional values be 
brokered into a scheme premised on materialism? 91 "A good scientific 
materialist," writes Dennett, "can be just as concerned about whether there 
is plenty of justice, love, joy, beauty, political freedom, and, yes, even 
religious freedom as about whether there is plenty of food and clothing, for 
instance, since all of these are material benefits, and some are more 
important than others." 92 No doubt a scientific materialist can be concerned 
about such things; nor need we have any doubt that Dennett himself 
concerns himself over such things. But it is doubtful whether or not, in 
doing so, he is behaving scientifically or materialistically. From the 
perspective of philosophical materialism, love and beauty, for example, 
prove notoriously elusive substances, and the scientific materialist is often 
reduced to dealing not with love or beauty, but with near-equivalents in 
perception. Thus the sociologist and psychologist deal not with the amount 
of love in a given community, since love itself ends up altogether evading 
objective measurement, but rather with the impression (which can be 
mistaken) of being loved, or with expressions (which can be faked) of 
affection. Here Dennett seems to have fallen into a charge he previously 
sought to evade, or at least qualify: that of reductionism. There are, on his 
account, good reductionisms and bad, or "greedy," reductionisms. The 
emphasis on "all" signals the greedy reductionism in Dennett's 
appropriation of "justice, love, joy, beauty, political freedom, and, yes, even 
religious freedom." Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a greedier one. 

In that regard, the possibility that Harris has derived the central premise 
of his moral landscape from religion presents only the most acute form of 
the crisis. The question we face, then, is that of whether he can be relied 

91 See "The Heirs of La Coterie Holbachique" for the connection French 

92 BtS, 305 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists ^75 

upon to distinguish between the moral insights he has drawn from spiritual 
practice, and his claims for a purely objective, scientific moral landscape. I 
have little doubt of his sincerity. If he tells us that he has experienced 
"consciousness prior to the subject/object dichotomy," then certainly he 
must have had some such experience. Even the claim that "it is, at least in 
principle, an experience that is available to anyone" seems plausible 
enough. But surely not everyone would have the experience and conclude 
from it that consciousness is, as he claims, "prior to the subject/object 
dichotomy." That interpretation, as well as the ethical premises he draws 
from it, are very likely an effect of the context in which he was introduced 
to the spiritual practice, predicated on the claim that "consciousness 
inherently transcends its contents" and that the practitioner can "discover 
that it already enjoys the well-being that the self would otherwise seek." 93 
His meditative practices are, in that regard, indistinguishable from most 
forms of religious ritual, and for that reason we may even be tempted to 
regard them as innately religious in character. 94 Hereto, this essay has 
concentrated on philosophical reasons for insisting on better substantiation 
than Harris has yet given for the role he assigns to "well-being," but the 
possibility that it has, in fact, been furnished by religious practice makes it 
all the more crucial that he ground the notion in logical argument, rather 
than provoke it in subjective experience, if it is to be accepted as scientific. 
What he has provided instead is a series of evasions and rationalizations for 
its inclusion. 

In the face of criticisms that suggest these difficulties, Harris has been 
characteristically dismissive. In response to a unnamed critic asking "Why 
should human well-being matter to us?" he responds, "Well, why should 
logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? 
Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and 
profoundly stupid questions." 95 He seems to have interpreted his critic as 
denying that we do, in practice, value human well-being, when the point 
may have been to draw attention to the way in which well-being 
surreptitiously introduces the traditional value of good, even while denying 
the logical burdens that attend it. The bid to justify a preference for well- 
being he likens to an attempt to justify transitivity in logic. "A skeptic," he 
argues, "could say that this is nothing more than an assumption that we've 

93 TEoF, 221 

94 See "The Taxonomy of Religion" for discussion of the significance of ritual 
to the identification of religion. 

95 "Moral Confusion in the Name of Science," The Huffington Post, March 29, 

na b 517710.html. 

iy6 Against the Irreligious Right 

built into the definition of 'equality.' Others will be free to define 'equality' 
differently. Yes, they will. And we will be free to call them 'imbeciles. '" His 
resort to ridicule strikes me as a tacit declaration of the failure of ethical 
philosophy, as though to say that, in the face of the apparent insolubility of 
dilemmas like Hume's is-ought problem, we have no recourse but to settle 
for programs of casuistry, and to build them on a moral framework that one 
questions only at the risk of being ostracized. To make that suggestion 
crystal clear: The Moral Landscape does not, after all, present an ethical 
theory, but rather an elaborate rationalization for a scientistic casuistry with 
unexamined foundations. 


In the end, I am not particularly concerned, as apparently some of Harris' 
detractors have been, "that an emphasis on human 'well-being' would lead 
us to do terrible things like reinstate slavery, harvest the organs of the poor, 
periodically nuke the developing world, of nurture our children on a 
continuous drip of heroin." 96 Given his own resort to ridicule, apocalyptic 
forecasts and brusque dismissals of criticism, Harris risks calling kettle 
black when he suggests that such critics are "not thinking about these issues 
seriously." At any rate, we need not rely on intimidating scenarios of that 
sort. Certainly, there have been episodes in human history when social 
theory and lapses in moral rigor have contrived to plunge us into atrocity, 
and we are not guaranteed to avoid such pitfalls in the future. But while not 
every person will have to endure a genocide or enslavement, every person 
faces daily moral dilemmas. The moral intuitions and theories that inform 
mundane decisions therefore have an impact that is, for most people, more 
immediate than those envisioned in those hyperbolic scenarios. How we 
scale that ethical theory to encompass decisions measured in megadeaths 
remains a matter of grave concern, but with ethical premises like those 
suggested by the Four Horsemen, we may begin by assessing their impact 
on the local level. 

Tightly knit with that concern over the scale of moral theory we 
encounter a similar concern over its scope. Harris' interest in the use of 
moral theory is decidedly global. Science, he tells us, "can, in principle, 
help us understand what we should do and should want - and, therefore, 
what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives 
possible." 97 We might go so far as to say that science's appeal as a tool of 
moral inquiry lies in how it allows the moralist to dictate the obligations of 

96 TML, 199 fn. 11 

97 TML, 28 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists lyy 

others. Part of Harris' vision for the moral landscape is its capacity to 
dissolve ethical disagreement by fiat. The potential for mutual self- 
destruction inherent in modern weaponry provides him with the pretense for 
making an imperative of that capacity - sense consensus is necessary to 
avert our annihilation, forging a moral consensus becomes, itself, a moral 

What that means in practical terms he leaves mostly to the imagination, 
perhaps because he is at least dimly aware that the most logical 
interpretations tend toward conclusions that conflict with the liberal ground 
he has sought to inhabit. After all, how could the refusal to "respect and 
tolerate vast differences" serve any practical purpose against the threat of 
"destructive technology," unless that refusal implied some form of action 
devised to narrow or negate those distances? That seems to be the sort of 
action he has in mind when he writes that it is ethical to "drop a bomb on 
Osama bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri" not for anything that either man 
has done, but because "they are likely to get a lot of innocent people killed 
because of what they and their followers believe about jihad, martyrdom, 
the ascendancy of Islam, etc." 98 Here we see the moral element directed 
towards the construction of a political agenda, and the insistence that such 
differences should be neither respected nor tolerated suggests an 
authoritarian impulse. Those considerations tell us something about how he 
envisions the future of ethical inquiry. 

The domain of moral and ethical philosophy may be construed in two 
ways. In the first, the pivot of any given ethical philosophy will be the 
ethical agent who invokes it. She will have gone to ethical philosophy in 
order to gain clarity about her own decision-making process, and in that 
regard, ethics proves to be an explicitly personal, subjective and voluntary 
discipline. In either case, ethics will serve to change the way she relates to 
some facet of the world around her, but in this case it does so by giving her 
the tools to draw her own conclusions and make her own choices. 

In the second interpretation, the domain of moral and ethical thought is 
necessarily social, and its subject extends beyond the person who subscribes 
to any particular ethical theory. On that view, she will have gone to ethical 
philosophy not only to understand her own obligations, but (more to the 
point) to circumscribe the obligations of others; to understand not only what 
she ought to expect of them, but also to recognize when they have failed. 
We are, then, talking about a discursive process whereby the ethical theory 
of specialists is dictated to the general population as a lay morality. When 
we construe it thus, morality becomes social, rather than personal; it is 

98 "Response to Controversy"; see "The Diagnostics of Belief" for a fuller 

iy8 Against the Irreligious Right 

taken as objective, rather than subjective; and its appeal is that it overrides 
the volition of the ethical agent in order to conscript her to a program 
decided upon by some external authority. In as much as the ethical theory 
was constructed with that dissemination in mind, we are talking about an 
ethics that proves more political than genuinely philosophical, in that it 
addresses itself to the distribution of power as much as to the structure of 
inquiry. In such cases it is prudent to remain skeptical, since a political 
ethics may well be canted to the advantage of the ethical elite, and at the 
expense of the parties conscripted to its moral incarnation. 

It is in the context of those two views of ethical theory that we can make 
sense of the rhetorical question Harris asks: "how have we convinced 
ourselves that on the subject of morality, all views must count equally?" To 
the extent that ethics represents a method of inquiry bearing on each 
person's decision-making process, the question is nonsense. It is like asking 
what point value to assign to the king in a game of chess: as far as morality 
goes, the whole of the game is involved in the individual's personal belief. 
The question only makes sense with regards to a political ethics, one that 
conscripts each person to a standard for which they had no responsibility. 
As Harris puts it, "everyone also has an intuitive 'morality,' but much 
intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing 
personal and collective well-being). And only genuine moral experts would 
have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and 
animal well-being." 99 At one point, in fact, Harris defines "the proper goal 
of morality" in strictly socio-political terms as that of "living a fulfilling life 
with others." 100 Significantly, the Nicomachean Ethics - from which that 
notion of the Good Life was derived - classifies ethics as a branch of 
politics. In elaborating his ethical theory, Aristotle hoped to contribute to the 
proper ordering of the state. 

It is here that concerns arise over the social implications of Harris' moral 
landscape. In his reference to "other people" and his rejection of toleration 
and respect, Harris marks his ethical theory with the stamp of politics. 101 As 
such, he has laid the foundation for the same sort of ethical theory invoked 
by religious conservatives when they abjure others on the basis of their 
sexual behavior, or when they attempt to pass laws that enforce morality. 
That proves particularly ironic given how the discussion in the fifth chapter 
of The End of Faith turns on the injustice of legislating morality, 
specifically "drug use, prostitution, sodomy, and the viewing of obscene 

99 TML, 36 

100 TML, 205 fn. 24 

101 For that reason alone, the topics covered here, of necessity, bleed over 
into those discussed in another essay, "The Irreligious Right" - which see. 

Landscapes and Zeitgeists iyg 

materials," behaviors that "have been categorized as 'victimless crimes.'" 102 
On Harris' account, to provide a moral argument against a particular 
behavior it need only be demonstrated that the behavior adversely affects 
the objective well-being of the person who engages in it. The principle that 
morality can tell us, "perforce, what other people should do and want in 
order to live the best lives" can further be strengthened by the argument that 
"belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a 
person's life." 103 

In fact, a fifth of The Moral Landscape is given over to an account of 
belief that further cedes ethical agency to the sphere of Harris' favored 
"moral elite," the neuroscientist. The establishment of that external 
authority implies a situation in which the laity simply surrenders the lion's 
share of personal responsibility. In calling for us to acknowledge the "moral 
expertise" of scientists in his own field, Harris seems to suggest that we 
should think of ethics as something that the rest of us passively accept in the 
form of morality. An illustration of that process is described by Hannah 
Arendt in the essay "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship." 104 There 
she talks of the ordinary German citizen's participation in the war and 
Holocaust as the subscription to a morality devised and disseminated by the 
National Socialists, and puts forward the thesis that those who refused to 
participate, even when they could not articulate their reasons for that 
refusal, did so because they had retained their sense of personal moral 
responsibility. On the basis of what he has said and written, I see no way of 
evading the conclusion that Harris' interest rests in replacing individual 
ethical choice with a form of unanswerable moral authority. 

It will be noted that in the course of criticizing these polemical accounts 
of ethical thought, I have mostly stopped short of offering an alternative 
ethical theory. That is, in no small part, to emphasize the value of ethical 
independence. Earlier I suggested that there are two ways to approach 
ethics, one philosophical and the other political. The first treats ethics as a 
discipline that each person must practice according to the best of their 
understanding and ability; the second, as a tool for fashioning creeds to 
which others may (or must) be conscripted. Harris is correct when he writes 
that, "There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that 
anyone is free to value anything," but mistaken in declaring the most 
consequential to be that "it is precisely what allows highly educated, 
secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and 

102 TEoF, 158 

103 TEoF, 12; see "The Diagnostics of Belief" for elaboration on that theme. 

104 Originally given as a lecture in 1964; reprinted in the volume 
Responsibility and Judgment (Schocken :2003) 

180 Against the Irreligious Right 

often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, 
genital excision, bride-burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful 
products of alternative 'morality' found elsewhere in the world." 105 In truth, 
that conclusion can only arise from treating ethics as though the purpose 
was to allow such highly education, well-intentioned people to make 
decisions on behalf of others. 

That there are, as he claims, "women and girls getting their faces burned 
off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not 
consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the crime of 
getting raped" is not a consequence of supposing that people must bear the 
final responsibility for their own moral and ethical dispositions. Quite the 
opposite, in fact: such injustices are the result of a political approach to 
ethics, one which says, along with Harris, that the good (or God, or human 
well-being) is best served when some authority acts to override moral and 
ethical difference. 

Yet a great deal of risk adheres to the position that people must rely on 
their own reason and intuition to make decisions of moral consequence. The 
greatest of these is that they will make the wrong decision, whatever that 
may prove to be. But so long as we are consistent, what I have described as 
the genuinely philosophical approach to ethics can never contribute to a 
situation where violence or legislation are respected as tools of ensuring 
moral conformity. 

105 TML, 42 

The Heirs df La Coterie 

In THE 18™ CENTURY, a nobleman named Paul -Henri Thiry hosted a twice 
weekly salon frequented by some of the most noted intellectuals of the day. 
Diderot was counted among the attendees, as was Condorcet, Helvetius, 
Hume, and Gibbon. It was Rousseau, a sometimes attendee, who declared 
the loose group la coterie holbachique. Though the salon met at his home in 
Paris, Thiry - better known to contemporary readers as Baron d'Holbach - 
was born Paul Heinrich Dietrich of Germany, and had attended the 
University of Leiden not long before forming his Parisian salon. As such, 
d'Holbach stood astride the two major cultural and philosophical streams of 
his day, the German Enlightenment on the one hand, and French 
Materialism on the other. Among the topics regularly discussed at his salon 
were religion and Rationalism, and it hardly exaggerates the matter to say 
that the main lines of modern Western secularism all passed through his 
home at one time or another during its thirty year span. The Baron himself 
wrote a number of treatises hostile to religion, starting with Christianity 
Unveiled and culminating with Good Sense, an abridgment of his magnum 
opus The System of Nature, that was (and for our purposes, remains) the 
model for subsequent atheist polemic. D'Holbach died in early 1789, only 
months before the onset of the French Revolution. 

That summary history represents the outlay of facts that make Baron 
d'Holbach suitable as a symbol for all that has descended from the 18 th 
century to the Four Horsemen and the modern school of thought they 
represent. Though the name has stuck, few critics can bear to write the 
words "New Atheist" without, at one point or another, qualifying that there 
is nothing particularly new about the New Atheism. Indeed, both in 
substance and style, Good Sense reads like a contemporary of The End of 
Faith and God Is Not Great. The atheistic critique pressed by the Four 


182 Against the Irreligious Right 

Horsemen bears so many marked similarities to the criticism of d'Holbach's 
era, that it may be tempting to regard them as a mere update of that mostly 
bygone creed. Yet there remains sufficient reason to consider their attack on 
persistent religious culture something new, on grounds that it takes work to 
resuscitate a body from which the life is mostly gone. Most of the 
recapitulation and analysis in the essays that accompany this one have been 
concerned with intellectual work that has gone into retrofitting an 18 th 
century critique for a 21 st century context. 1 

The philosophes of the 18 th century had inherited from 17 th century 
Cartesianism two basic axioms: the supremacy of reason and the 
invariability of the laws of nature. Decartes had forwarded those principles 
as a rebuttal against the radical skepticism of philosophers of the previous 
generation, such as Michel de Montaigne, and they were rapidly taken up 
into what was called the dispute of the Ancients and the Moderns. The 
Ancients championed a contemporary version of the classical notion that 
the world suffered from a continual decline; each generation represented a 
progressive falling away from the greatness of previous generations. The 
Moderns countered by arguing, on the basis of the Cartesian axioms, that 
human civilization was, in fact, progressive, and that future generations 
could be counted on to build upon the achievements of those that went 
before. Human nature was considered constant, such that successive 
generations would not lack for ability, and the supremacy of reason would 
allow for the incremental growth of knowledge and technique. The dispute 
was ultimately settled in favor of the Moderns, and the vision of progressive 
human civilization that they favored took on something like its doctrinal 
form in the opening decades of the 1 8 th century under the stewardship of 
intellectuals like Fontenelle and Castel, abbe de Saint-Pierre. 

The doctrine of Progress, as we have come to know it, provided the 
context for the radical religious critiques put forward by la coterie 
holbachique . The basic creed allowed the argument that human civilization 
had progressed beyond the need for an anachronistic superstition like 
religion. D'Holbach himself expressed it thus: 

The origin of religious opinions is generally dated from the time, 
"when savage nations were yet in infancy. It "was to gross, ignorant, 
and stupid people, that the founders of religion have in all ages 

1 Much of what follows is derived from The Idea of Progress. An Inquiry Into 
Its Origin and Growth, J. B. Bury (MacMillan: 1920); At the Origins of Modern 
Atheism, Michael J. Buckley (Yale:1990); and French Liberal Thought in the 
Eighteenth Century: A Study of Political Ideas from Bayle to Condorcet, 
Kingsley Martin (Ernest Benn Ltd: 1929). 

The Heirs df La Coterie Hdlbachique i8_g 

addressed themselves, "when they "wished to give them their Gods, 
their mode of "worship, their mythology, their marvelous and frightful 
fables. These chimeras, adopted "without examination by parents, are 
transmitted, "with more or less alteration, to their children, "who 
seldom reason any more than their parents. 2 

The analogy that compares historical eras to the phases of human growth - 
infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and (in some versions) senility - was 
indicative of some brands of the Progressive doctrine, and Dawkins, 
Hitchens and Harris may all be observed to espouse some version of it. 

Indeed, the opposition put forward by the French Materialist school was 
bound up with the notion of the inevitable Progress of civilization under the 
guiding hand of Reason. In its approach to the French Revolution, the main 
lines of Rationalism were represented by two groups. On the one hand were 
the contributors to Denis Diderot's Encyclopedic Propagandistic, anti- 
clerical, anti-authoritarian, they taught the perfectibility of humanity and the 
unity of scientific knowledge. On the other hand were those historian J. M. 
Bury calls "the Economists," who focused on the study of society, and 
particularly the problems of production and distribution. They tended to be 
less idealistic than their Encyclopedist brethren, providing the foundation 
for English utilitarianism and serving as the branching point for both 
capitalism and socialism in something like their modern forms. It would 
perhaps be illuminating, in a larger study than this, to situate many of the 
differences of approach and opinion that distinguish the Four Horsemen 
from one another in terms of which influence, Encyclopedist or Economist, 
predominates in each. 

At times, each of the Four Horsemen makes explicit reference to those 
Materialist forbearers. Hitchens, for his part, traces the tradition further 
back, through the Renaissance, back to the "Resistance of the Rational" 3 he 
sees in 7 th century Athens, particularly via the dialectical method of 
Socrates. It is likely that Hitchens has overestimated the commitment 
Socrates and his (not always faithful) transmitter Plato had to pure reason; 
both had an equal commitment to what the classical scholar E. R. Dodds 
calls "the Irrational," of which Socrates' "good daemon" was only the most 
overt example. 4 Nevertheless, Hitchens commutes this resistance into "The 
Need for a New Enlightenment," 5 one in which we "transcend our 

2 Good Sense, §14 

3 GING, Chapter Eighteen 

4 Cf. The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds (1968) 

5 GING, Chapter Nineteen 

184 Against the Irreligious Right 

prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to 
the catacombs and the reeking alters and the guilty pleasures of subjection 
and abjection." 6 

If, until this century, there have been few advocates of Enlightenment or 
Rationalism as stringent as d'Holbach, it may be because his inheritors 
benefit from a hindsight that was barred to him and many of his generation. 
D'Holbach did not live to see the history made by the philosophy he and his 
fellow philosophes had written. As with the victims depicted in Kafka's 
"The Penal Colony," the translation of high ideals into a historical 
circumstance is too often accomplished by inscribing change directly and 
horrifically onto the bodies of real people. Writing from their end of history, 
the philosophes may have believed that Rationalism would, as a 
consequence of its very nature, avoid the faults of the absolutisms they 
derided. If so, the grotesque turns of the French Revolution demonstrated to 
their successors how swiftly Rationalism could be distorted into an 
absolutism in its own right. 

The pre-Modern period may be said to end with the Revolution, ushering 
in democratic and philosophical reforms that have since defined our 
conception of civilization as such. Perhaps because it is so central to the 
history of our particular brand of civilization, we often fail to recognize 
what a bloody affair it was. The fight against the ancien regime was only 
one aspect of the struggle, and the modern graduate who returns to the 
subject years after having learned it in school may be most startled to 
realize how much of the struggle took place within the hearts and minds of 
the revolutionaries themselves. 

There were, of course, visible battles: the July 1789 riots, the storming of 
the Bastille, the Great Fear. But it was what took place after the abolition of 
feudalism in August of the same year that showed the vicious potential in 
the high ideals of the Republic. Violent suppression was deemed necessary 
to maintain the reforms agains the rebellions of anti-revolutionaries. In 
time, opposition to those forces became a handy pretext for police and 
military action against groups that were less credibly labeled anti- 
revolutionary. In 1791, the National Assembly passed a Draconian law 
forbidding emigration from France. Riots and mob violence were the usual 
accompaniment to the official declarations of the Assembly. Such violence 
was often followed by the imposition of curfew and the suppression of free 
speech. The attempt to govern on Rationalist principles failed repeatedly, 
often with catastrophic effects, and was kept alive only at the cost of 
continual revision. War was deemed necessary both to protect the Republic 
from external threats as well as to secure hope of exporting the Revolution 

6 GING, 283 

The Heirs df La Coterie Hdlbachique 185 

to France's neighbors. More to the point, the Revolution achieved its goals 
largely by waging nearly ceaseless war on its own citizens. When the 
economy all but collapsed, the sans-culottes rioted, giving way to famine 
and the Reign of Terror. Tens of thousands of citizens were executed in a 
matter of years, many of them without trial. 

The religious were particularly vulnerable. Priceless works of art and 
architecture were destroyed and defaced as part of a bid to dechristianize 
France. A law passed in October of 1793 threatened death to clergy 
members who refused to swear an oath of loyally, as well as to anyone who 
harbored them; more than 200 members of the clergy had been massacred 
over a two day period only a year prior. An atheist Cult of Reason was 
formed to supplant Catholicism, then was itself supplanted by a deistic Cult 
of the Supreme Being, and an effigy of the Goddess "Reason" was paraded 
through Notre Dame cathedral. The French Republic Calendar was 
established in part to exclude religious holy days in which the pious might 
still take solace. The French army eventually managed under the command 
of General Berthier to capture Rome and imprison Pope Pius VI, who died 
in captivity in 1799. The overt hostility of the Republic to formal religion 
ended only after the coup d'etat of Napoleon Bonaparte, who negotiated the 
Concordat of 1801 with the pope's successor, Pius VII. 

This represents, of course, only a summary and much simplified account, 
and is meant only to suggest the severity of what was inarguably a defining 
moment in European history. Its echoes have reverberated through the 
centuries that followed it. I would argue that at least one result is that the 
historically conscious have been cautious of the claims of Rationalism ever 
since. Certainly few have gone so far as reject it altogether, but the 
intellectual climate has long been such as to make it nearly impossible to 
revive the glowing, unqualified enthusiasm we see in a work like Good 
Sense. That d'Holbach knew nothing of the Revolution goes some way 
towards explaining his enthusiasm; he could not have anticipated the social 
upheavals of the 1 9 th and 20 th centuries, nor the abuses that inevitably arise 
when executive power dedicates itself to the task of "total" programs of 
social organization, even under the auspices of democracy. We are obliged 
to excuse the philosophes, for whom communes and Utopias were a novelty 
still in the experimental stage. They did not yet benefit, as we may, from the 
analyses of a Max Horkheimer, a Reinhold Neibuhr, or an Isaiah Berlin, nor 
from the artistry of a Dickens, a Kafka, or an Orwell. 

The New Atheists lack that excuse. They play at having reclaimed the 
philosophes' innocence of certain major themes of modernity. Having laid 
claim to that innocence, they are then free to suggest much that stands in 
direct contradiction to the experience of the intervening centuries. There 
sometimes arise indications that they at least recognize those themes. 

186 Against the Irreligious Right 

Dennett hints at it when he writes that, "Good intentions are not enough. If 
we learned anything in the twentieth century, we learned this, for we made 
some colossal mistakes with the best of intentions." 7 And yet, ten chapters 
later we find him suggesting, in rather tentative language, some very well- 
intentioned and equally dubious policies. His brief moment of reflection 
passes quickly, and much of what chases it suggests a denial of those very 
lessons. 8 


Harris expresses the return to an unqualified enthusiasm when he writes, 

It has grown fashionable to assert that the true horror of the 
Holocaust, apart from its scale, was that it was an expression of 
reason, and that it therefore demonstrates a pathology inherent to the 
Western Enlightenment tradition. The truth of this assertion is held 
by many scholars to be self-evident — for no one can deny that 
technology, bureaucracy, and systematic managerial thinking made 
the genocidal ambitions of the Third Reich possible. The romantic 
thesis lurking here is that reason itself has a "shadow side" and is 
therefore no place to turn for the safeguarding of human happiness. 
This is a terrible misunderstanding of the situation, however. The 
Holocaust marked the culmination of German tribalism and two 
thousand years of Christian fulminating against the Jews. Reason had 
nothing to do with it. 9 

That passage could be taken as emblematic of the distortions to which the 
New Atheists are willing to subject historical interpretation in order to 
render the past conformable to an 1 8 th century Rationalism. Harris has left 
entirely out of account both the Rationalistic ideal of nationalism, as well as 
the progressive view of history that informed the Holocaust, and which are 
most easily called to mind by simply voicing the name most associated with 
the event: National Socialism. What evidence Harris has of the direct role 
played by "two thousand years of Christian fulminating against the Jews" 
he does not say, and the explanation is left to work primarily by inference 
and association. By contrast, in the first part of her study, The Origins of 

7 BtS, 15 

8 See "The Irreligious Right" for details. 

9 TEoF, 249 fn. 47 

The Heirs df La Coterie Hdlbachique i8y 

Totalitarianism, Jewish-German political philosopher Hannah Arendt traces 
modern anti-semitism to the 19* and 20 th century reaction against the 
economic growth of a secular, Jewish bourgeoisie; that and its connection to 
nationalism place the anti-semitism of Nazi Germany in a direct line of 
descent from the traditions of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. 

It may be simply that Harris is unfamiliar with Arendt's analysis, or of the 
well-documented periods of cultural shift that intervened and which 
distinguish modern anti-semitism from its more sporadic and localized 
Medieval and Renaissance antecedents. In the end, the source that Harris 
calls in support of his interpretation proves a curious one: Ken Wilbur's Sex, 
Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. 10 The point is not only that 
Harris would have done better to have chosen a more historically grounded 
citation. He seems to have gone out of his way to choose one that will allow 
him to preserve the validity of 18 th century Rationalism, even against the 
counsel of history. This sort of discursive maneuvering proves common 
enough in the work of the Four Horsemen; so much so, in fact, that it can be 
easy to overlook precisely how complex and baroque it actually is. In order 
to defensibly maintain the continuing validity of the Rationalist tradition, 
Harris has, in effect, denied the relevance of decades, if not centuries, of 
study and analysis, and suggested as the most reasonable replacement a 
book that reinterprets nearly the whole of Western civilization along radical 
lines. Where I have retained the term New Atheist, it has been specifically 
for the purpose of calling to mind the artifice necessary to pull off that 
brand of radical denial. 

What is new, then, is the body of supplementary rhetoric necessary to 
bridge the centuries and make the rhetoric of the pre -Revolutionary period 
seem relevant to an era well-versed in the historical results of the 
Revolution. Upon closer examination, in fact, much of what distinguishes 
the books of the Four Horsemen from their 1 8 th century predecessors serves 
only to make those 18 th century arguments viable once again. One way of 
doing so is by reinterpreting the intervening history so as to obviate the 
lessons of modernity. Since a more detailed account has already been given 
in "The Flattening of Historical Perspective," the present essay will 
concentrate on how such reinterpretation reconnects New Atheist rhetoric to 
the age of d'Holbach. The fortunes of 20 th century Marxism seem to have 
struck the Horsemen as particularly problematic; Harris and Hitchens, in 

10 Shambhala:1995; the curiousness of Harris' citation is underscored by the 
book's publisher - Shambhala Publications, which grew out of the counter- 
culture movement of the late 1960s, and specializes in Buddhism and 
metaphysical topics, ; 
accessed September, 2010. 

188 Against the Irreligious Right 

particular, have gone out of their way to situate that history in a context 
favorable to their arguments. 

From the New Atheist perspective, the problem with Marxism is that it 
represents the 20 th century's most spectacular example of the failure a well- 
intentioned application of reason to the organization of society. Marxist 
theory was motivated by moral concern, not only for the proletariat 
exploited by the land owning classes, but also for humanity in general, 
which could be, according to theory, spared much of the suffering of 
inevitable social change by the careful management of revolution. All of 
this was undergirded by a body of argument that, at the best of times, 
matched anything in the political philosophy of the West for logical rigor - 
which says as much about its political competitors as it does for Marxism. 
As most know, the end of the 20 th century proved a veritable minefield of 
imploding Communist societies. 

It could be said, with some justice, that very few Communist countries 
managed to represent anything like true Marxism, and an apologist who 
wanted to maintain the validity of socialism could argue that additives like 
Stalinism, Maoism, and (as in the case of the former Yugoslav Republic) 
nationalism were the fatal ingredient in each of those examples. 
Alternatively, our hypothetical Marxist apologist might acknowledge that 
early 20 th century Marxism contained certain inherent flaws, while 
simultaneously maintaining the essential soundness of its premises; 
inasmuch as politics may be reckoned a science, the experiments of the last 
100 years could plausibly enable future socialists to correct those flaws. 

The more damning explanation is that the core of Marxism is rotten, that 
it is based on a handful of pivotal concepts that ultimately cannot stand up 
to rational scrutiny, and that, as such, it was doomed to failure from the 
outset. Something of the like is implied by the critiques put forward in The 
End of Faith and God Is Not Great. Both suggest that the core irrationality 
is a point Marxism has in common with religion. Moreover, they reinterpret 
Marxism as a "political religion," complete with its own gods and ritual 
worship. This allows them to not only reassert the traditional philosophe's 
dichotomy between religion and Rationalism, but to disavow any claim 
Rationalism might have to the atrocities and absurdities of Communist rule. 

Maintaining that scheme requires the New Atheists to take none too 
complex a view of reason. After all, most Marxists throughout the 20 th 
century believed that they were being rational. Marxist theory grew out of 
the traditions of Materialism and Enlightenment, out of the French 
intellectual tradition that looked to material causes for explanations for the 
pattern of history and the German tradition that explained social movements 
by reference to a Hegelian spirit of the age. The path that leads from 
d'Holbach to Proudhon to Marx is not so indirect, as it turns out. If the 
entire edifice of Marxism ultimately stands on the foundation of premises 

The Heirs df La Coterie Hdlbachique i8g 

that ultimately prove irrational, that speaks as much to the limitations of 
human reason as to any categorical difference between religion and political 
science. All logical arguments stand on unexamined premises; to undergird 
those premises with further logical argument only pushes the gap further 
back, since then those arguments will be made to stand on earlier 
unexamined premises. Decartes' project of finding rational bedrock on 
which to stand the whole structure of human knowledge has yet to be 
satisfactorily realized. Western thought, from the skepticism of Montaigne 
to the present day, has so far failed to render Rationalism an absolute. The 
blindness of the socialist ideologue to the epistemic rootlessness of the 
premises of Marxist theory, then, are hardly unique; the systematic thought 
of all humans is kept aloft by a similar kind of blindness. 

In that light, the argument from Rationalism, particularly acute in 
Harris, 11 proves akin to the Emperor's new clothes. Perhaps it is nowhere 
more clear that the New Atheists likewise have their logical blind spots than 
on the subject of morality. The most glaring example is the "moral 
Zeitgeist" proposed by Dawkins, since it depends on the same Hegelian 
foundation that served as the basis for Marxism. As such, Dawkins could 
hardly be expected to issue the same criticism of Marxism espoused by his 
fellow Horsemen; to do so would only highlight the logical weakness of his 
own moral argument. 12 

Given the growing popularity of New Atheist interpretations of history, it 
may not go without saying that there are other, potentially more compelling 
ways to understand the political ruptures of the last 300 years. One that is 
particularly worth highlighting in this context is the suggestion that political 
ideology has a dangerous tendency to lead to "total" solutions for any given 
social issue. The power exerted by ideological movements has been 
amplified by the spread of literacy and the development of a range of 
technologies (from the Gutenberg press to the internet) for disseminating 
information and ideas. One might even go so far as to suggest that the 
modern era is characterized by the victory of ideology. Again, the French 
Revolution is emblematic in this regard: it marks the dawn of an age in 
which the disagreement over what ideas should inform the structure of 
society grew to be at least as important as the possession of territory. 


11 See "The Diagnostics of Belief". 

12 By contrast, Harris has been more successful at disguising the 
unquestioned assumptions that underly his discussion of morality; see 
"Landscapes and Zeitgeists". 

igo Against the Irreligious Right 

It is a theme that runs through some of the greatest works of the 20 th 
century, from Isaiah Berlin to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - the ostensibly good 
and rational idea that, when put into practice as the guiding principle of 
society, turns suddenly monstrous and fatal. We see it presaged already in 
the Utopian visions of the 18 th century, and afterwards realized in the 
dystopias of 20 th century literature. Of the French writer Louis-Sebastien 
Mercier's L 'An 2440, 13 J. M. Bury wrote: 

The world of 2440, its intolerably docile and virtuous society, reflects 
two capital "weaknesses in the speculation of the Encyclopaedist 
period: a failure to allow for the strength of human passions and 
interests, and a deficient appreciation of the meaning of liberty. 
Much as the reformers acclaimed and fought for toleration, they did 
not generally comprehend the value of the principle. They did not 
see that in a society organised and governed by Reason and Justice 
themselves, the unreserved toleration of false opinions "would be the 
only palladium of progress; or that a doctrinaire State, composed of 
perfectly virtuous and deferential people, "would arrest development 
and stifle originality, by its ungenial if mild tyranny. 14 

The New Atheists can be generally counted upon to disavow Utopian aims, 
but remain notably less certain when it comes to "the unreserved toleration 
of false opinions." 

"The principle is unassailable," Dennett insists, just before himself 
assailing it: "we others have no right to intrude on their private practices so 
long as we can be sure that they are not injuring others. But it is getting 
harder and harder to be sure about when this is the case." 15 Harris takes the 
principle much further when he insists that private belief is a matter of 
public concern because it represents a principles of action that is all but 
irresistible. 16 Though neither acknowledges it, the positions they have 
outlined represent direct challenges to the principle established by John 
Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty 11 Dennett's formulation, in fact, adheres 
closely to Mill's, "that the only purpose for which power can be rightly 
exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to 
prevent harm to others." Both Dennett and Harris espouse that premise, 

13 Paris:1771 

14 J. M. Bury, The Idea of Progress, 197-198. 

15 SfS, 13-14 

16 See "The Diagnostics of Belief" and "The Irreligious Right" for details. 

17 London: 1859 

The Heirs df La Coterie Hdlbachique igi 

typically referred to as the "harm principle." Indeed, On Liberty stands at 
the fore of the 19 th century intellectual tradition that informs Harris' 
argument against so-called "victimless crimes" in the fifth chapter of The 
End of Faith; it likewise informs the principle of William James that 
religion is a private matter. Yet compare it to Harris contention, "that the 
very ideal of religious tolerance - born of the notion that every human being 
should be free to believe whatever he wants about God - is one of the 
principal forces driving us toward the abyss." 18 Dennett cites James as an 
intellectual hero, but nevertheless departs from him at precisely the point 
where his work converges with that of Mill. Both Dennett and Harris have 
sought to turn the clock back 100 years on Mill's philosophy. They place the 
principle in a rhetorical context more indicative of the age of d'Holbach. By 
doing so (though they likely would not see it that way) they erode the 
principles that have made On Liberty integral to contemporary thought. To 
suppose, as Harris does, that belief is so intimately connected to behavior as 
to obviate any right of conscience, is to nullify the premise of On Liberty. 

The tension between The End of Faith and On Liberty is worth 
emphasizing because Mill represents one of the primary lines of the post- 
Revolution reappraisals by which what was best in the Age of Reason was 
made workable for the modern era. He was born in the final days of the 
Revolution, and weaned on the ethical theory of the English wing of the 
philosophical thought represented in France by Encyclopediasts and 
Economists. The extent to which he broke from the Utilitarianism of 
Bentham and his father, James Mill, is explicable in part by his familiarity 
with the shortcomings of those theories when put into practice. That is to 
say, John Stuart partook in that growing historical consciousness that 
transformed the idealism of the pre-Revolutionary era into the practical 
wisdom of the 1 9 th and 20 th centuries. The New Atheists ignore his counsel 
at their own peril, yes, but at ours, as well. 

A century after Mill, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued 
that the guiding principle of the United States consists in its long tradition 
of forsaking ideological purity for a kind of historical realism. What 
characterized that realism, in Niebuhr 's view, was its propensity to modify 
policy in accordance with a faculty of conscience that is, as often as not, 
inscrutable. 19 Americans, in other words, philosophically cling to principle, 
and in many cases, the specific principles enshrined by the Age of Reason, 
but remain ever willing to depart from principle if the contingencies of the 
moment seem to warrant it. Behind that willingness stands a recognition of 
the limitations of pure Rationalism, which often fails to take cognizance of 

18 TEoF, 15 

19 The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr (Scribner & Sons:1952) 

ig2 Against the Irreligious Right 

the very facts that will determine the outcome of policy. When they mention 
Niebuhr, the Horsemen tend to be amiable but dismissive. Whatever they 
think of his theism, they would do well to emulate the seriousness with 
which he contemplated the lessons of history. 

It would perhaps not put too fine a point on it to say that the New Atheists 
have embraced a kind of alternative history, and that they are therefore 
either compelled, or at liberty, to draw an alternative set of conclusions. The 
shape of that alternative history can be in part discerned from the reference 
materials they cite. In The End of Faith alone we find Voltaire and Gibbon 
cited as historical references. Both were authors of much eminence, but 
both were also doctrinaire, in line with the anti-clericalism of the 18 th 
century, and their accounts have been flavored by the points that each hoped 
to score against the leviathans of their day. 

Two other influences echo throughout God Is Not Great, that of Orwell 
on the one hand, and of Freud's The Future of An Illusion on the other. It 
could be argued that Hitchens' interpretation of Orwell accords in the main 
with Niebuhr's sense of realism, adherence to strict Rationalism ever 
modified by the conscience of the witness to history. 20 But the spirit of 
Freud dominates in God Is Not Great - a retrograde spirit that dresses 1 8 th 
century thought in the garb of 19 th and early 20 th century psychological 
theory. Thus, religion is held to labor ever under the specter of Thanatos, 
what Freud called the "death drive," by which each person is supposed to 
seek their own annihilation. In Freudian theory, Thanatos is normally held 
in tension by Eros, the sexual drive representing the principle of life. 
Disorders arise when Thanatos oversteps its boundaries, and religion, 
therefore, is a disorder of the highest grade. Having anchored himself to this 
Freudian interpretation, it is no surprise when we find Hitchens declaring 
religious belief intrinsically morbid, and ranking sexual prohibitions among 
the worst of religion's affronts to nature. Dennett's explanation of the 
origins of funeral rites may be regarded as a more sophisticated version of 
the premise that religious belief originates with the natural human horror of 
death. 21 

The 1 8 th century had given form to the notion of nationalism; 22 the French 
Revolution elevated it to the status of animating principle of the next 
several centuries of Western development. The first fruit brought to bear by 
those seeds in the 20 th century was the Great War. It was driven by a 

20 See esp. Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens (Basic:2002). 

21 Cf. eg. TEoF, 36-38; TGD, 396-9; GING, i.a. 

22 The German term, from which our English notion of nationalism is derived, 
seems to have been coined by the Enlightenment philosopher Johann 
Gottfried Herder in the 1770s. 

The Heirs df La Coterie Hdlbachique ig^ 

panoply of nationalisms: Serbian, German, Russian, Turk, Arab, Jewish and 
American; the technical successes of Rationalism made it the most 
relentless and bloody war fought thereto, as entire nations were converted 
into veritable war machines. Drastic change had come to the world, and 
entire schools of thought were forced to seek ways of reconciling doctrine 
to certain facts of human nature that now seemed unavoidable. To the 
generation that came of age with Paschendale and Gallipoli, the Great War 
served as an indictment of the modernity that their elders had fashioned out 
of the ideals of the Age of Reason. The first stirring of the post-modern age 
can be discerned in the poetry and prose of returned servicemen like 
Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Ernst Junger. 23 Even Freud, who 
properly belonged to the previous generation, seems to have felt compelled 
to reassess his own work in the shadow of the war. No doubt the idea of a 
psychological drive working counter to the libido had germinated for some 
time, but it was not until two years after the war that Freud formally 
introduced the death drive into theory. 24 Some critics since then have argued 
that the death drive was inspired by the death of his 27-year-old daughter 
Sophie the same year. Freud denied the charge and it may be said in his 
defense that recent history had already made Germany witness to sufficient 
death and hardship to explain the morbid turn in his hitherto libido-centric 

Still, Freud had lived the better part of 60 years when Serbian nationalists 
assassinated his country's Archduke in June of 1914, and the inertia of a life 
time lived in the flowering of modernity would prevent him from taking as 
much to heart the outlook of those who served in the trenches. The 
introduction of the death drive complicated Freudian theory, but it can be 
viewed as an essentially conservative addition. By providing a principle that 
could reconcile that his system with the experience of the War, Beyond the 
Pleasure Principle preserved the rationalistic premises on which the entire 
edifice of Freudian psychoanalysis had been founded. The preservation of 
the old ideology allowed him to follow that book, first with The Future of 
Illusion, then with Civilization and Its Discontents. Taken together, those 
three can be seen as a tour de force against the changing tide of thought, the 
last major salvo of a generation committed to the ideologies that had driven 
the War. The thesis of the latter book shares certain strong affinities with the 
premises that informed much of the Revolutionary thought of the 18 th 
century, as for example, the Federalist Papers: that humans are driven by a 
selfish and innate aggression, and that civilization must be instituted in 

23 A particularly interesting survey of the period may be found in The Great 
War and Modem Memory, Paul Fussell (Oxford: 1975). 

24 Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud (1920) 

ig4 Against the Irreligious Right 

order to curb those tendencies. Despite their enduring popularity, both The 
Future of Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents were soon to meet 
their greatest challenge with the rise to power of the National Socialist party 
in Germany. Where Civilization and Its Discontents suggested the 
fundamental struggle of the individual with society, World War II and the 
Cold War after it suggested the extent to which human aggression could 
serve the ends of society, with horrific results. 

All of this is meant to suggest that Freud's later work proves attractive to 
Hitchens precisely because of the philosophically conservative element, for 
which the later author forgives it its clear shortcomings. Freudian analysis 
still has its proponents among modern therapists, but psychology has by and 
large passed into a more rigorously scientific phase, leaving Thanatos and 
Eros to the classical period. It remains useful for New Atheist rhetoric 
because it provides a pretense for ushering in a perspective that could not 
easily be sustained were Hitchens to adhere to a more contemporary line of 
inquiry. That, in order to do so, he has had to revive a theory that was out- 
of-date even when Freud proposed it only shows how desperate his case 
really is. For Freud had also bent psychological theory to the task of 
keeping alive a sociological and political theory that was, by then, already 
passing into the history of ideas. 


Hitchens' use of The Future of An Illusion indicates a certain struggle that 
has persisted at least since la coterie holbachique . In fact, the primary line 
of Liberal opposition begins with the author of that phrase, Jean-Jaques 
Rousseau. It was Rousseau who issued the most potent criticism of the 
notion that civilization served primarily to curb the worst excesses of 
human nature, and to Rousseau we may trace much of the Rationalistic 
tradition of internal dissent. His spirit remains something like the whispered 
conscience of Liberalism. As they have done with John Stuart Mill, whose 
On Liberty shares Rousseau's wariness of civil forms, the New Atheists 
have mostly seen fit to leave Rousseau out of account, or to distort his 

On the other side of that struggle stands the long and extensive tradition 
of intellectual work that serves to renew the assumptions of French 
Rationalism for each generation, often in contradiction to the historically 
contingent experiences that have molded each. Where the New Atheist's 
have culled certain popular intellectual notions of the 19 th and 20 th 
centuries, they have each time, almost without fail, chosen authors whose 
theories served to rehabilitate for their particular decade or century the 
tradition of d'Holbach. Thus we find Harris championing something like the 

The Heirs df La Coterie Hdlbachique igc; 

semantic arguments of the logical positivists; 25 Karl Popper's philosophy of 
science echoes in nearly every mention of the purported conflict between 
religion and science; 26 Dennett cites J. M. Balkin's book Cultural Software: 
A Theory of Ideology in order to establish that certain transcendental ideals 
are "inescapable." 27 For Dennett, the appeal is clear: Balkin is a Yale 
professor specializing in Constitutional law, with a penchant for applying 
memetics to moral theory. 

Perhaps what is most novel in the books of the Four Horsemen is the way 
in which they have folded modern scientific dispositions into the tradition 
of la coterie holbachique. I use the term "dispositions" advisedly, since the 
key concepts do not as yet appear to meet Popper's criteria of falsification, 
and thus cannot be regarded as theories in the sense most familiar to the 
Horsemen. Dawkins, for example, adopts the disposition described by the 
anthropic principle in order to achieve precisely the sort of denial of 
theology characteristic of the Age of Reason. Memetic explanation bears the 
marks of an even closer association with that tradition, as it has, from the 
very beginning, been associated with the attempt to explain the persistence 
of theology while at the same time denying its validity. 28 When Dawkins 
and Dennett invoke the proponents of meme theory, they are, whether 
consciously or not, favoring them for their revival of Rationalist accounts of 

In outlining this early history of religion, Dennett draws heavily on the 
arguments presented by Pascal Boyer in his book Religion Explained: The 
Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. 29 It may go some way towards 
explaining the appeal Boyer 's account has for Dennett to note that Boyer 's 
own explanatory method draws on themes that Dennett has, himself, 
pursued over the course of his career. Indeed, Boyer builds explicitly on 
several concepts previously developed by Dennett, so the suggestion that 
Religion Explained stands at the vanguard of "the best current version of 

25 See "The Diagnostics of Belief." 

26 See "Covert Theology"; the most succinct indication that Popper and 
Freud belong to the same philosophically conservative tradition may be 
Popper's variation on the title and theme of Civilization and Its Discontents, 
The Open Society and Its Enemies. 

27 BtS, Appendix B: "Some More Questions About Science," 374-378. In 
particular, the passage quoted by Dennett on 377 functions as a rebuke 
against moral relativism; see "Landscapes and Zeitgeists." 

28 The term was coined by Dawkins in the last chapter of Dawkins' The 
Selfish Gene (Oxford: 1976). 

29 Basic:2001 

ig6 Against the Irreligious Right 

the story science can tell" is not without an element of self- 
aggrandizement. 30 

Perhaps most telling from the historical point of view is the end to which 
Boyer puts the functionalist explanations of evolutionary biology, itself a 
recurring theme in the work of both Dennett (as the advocate par excellence 
of "Universal Darwinism") and Dawkins. For sound reasons, Boyer 's own 
field of expertise, anthropology, had dispensed with something like that 
brand of explanation nearly 50 years prior. In order to rehabilitate it for the 
purpose of exploring the origins of religion, Boyer builds a questionable 
analogy to biological explanations for the evolution of newly discovered 
organs of behavior. 31 Having nominally brokered functionalism back into 
anthropological inquiry, he goes on to rehabilitate other previously 
discarded explanations, albeit in slightly modified form. In Dennett's 
estimate, the central thesis put forward by anthropologists like Boyer "is 
that in order to explain the hold that various religious ideas and practices 
have on people, we need to understand the evolution of the human mind." 32 
The most salient point to understand, on this account, is how human minds 
get the world wrong. 33 From there, it is possible to devise explanations for 
religion by imagining the conditions that would lead a primitive human to 
posit gods and spirits as the explanation for otherwise inexplicable features 
of experience. 

By this avenue, Boyer and Dennett have revived the spirit of English 
anthropologists like Sir James Frazer, Edmund Spenser, and Edward 
Burnett Tylor, who applied the formative theses of anthropology to much 
the same end that Freud put psychology in The Future of An Illusion. The 
triptych in which I earlier placed that book may be considered part of a rear- 
guard movement to sustain those theses against the changing tide of 20 th 
century thought. The history of those discarded explanations is, itself, 
interesting, but for the moment the important point is their lineage. Like 
d'Holbach, the Victorian anthropologists began with the premise that 
religion grew out of the errors of the barbaric ages before Reason took hold 
in the human mind, and they were often guilty of selecting and interpreting 

30 Dennett goes so far as to present and argument, in Appendix C, to the 
effect that Boyer favors meme theory in effect, despite Boyer's explicit 
objections to the theory. 

31 Religion Explained, 26 
32 SfS, 106-107 

33 The details are recounted in more detail in "The Flattening of Historical 

The Heirs df La Coterie Hdlbachique igy 

their evidence to match the theories they favored. 34 They were, in effect, 
providing an ostensibly scientific bridge, connecting the end of the 19 th 
century to the Rationalism of the 1 8 th . By presenting the work of Boyer and 
his peers as the most reasonable guide to "what questions we ought to be 
trying to answer," 35 Dennett has extended that bridge to the beginning of the 
21 st . 


To many readers, it will do doubt seem that I have been courting charges of 
irrationalism with this essay. One of the rhetorical virtues of a doctrine like 
Rationalism is that it seems, on the face of it, eminently reasonable; it thus 
becomes difficult to offer up a critique of versions of the doctrine without 
seeming to favor the opposite, whatever that may be. To dispel any potential 
for confusion, then, allow me to acknowledge that reason figures as one of 
the most potent tools of the human cognitive apparatus, and it is, by no 
means, my intention to deny the benefits humanity has accrued through its 
judicious use. Rather, my concern is that some traditions, such as the 
Rationalism of the 18 th century, elevate reason to something like the 
goddess Reason idolized at the peak of the French Revolution. The power 
of that Reason is its unanswerability, its propensity to end discussions. It has 
the same rhetorical effect that accusations of heresy must have had during 
the reign of the Spanish Inquisition, since most people would rather fall 
silent rather than seem to be an enemy of Reason. It becomes, that is to say, 
a kind of orthodoxy, even against the wishes of those who have advocated 

Earlier, 36 1 suggested that a profitable distinction could be drawn between 
New Atheists (as representing certain perceptions about religion and 
society) and polemical atheists (as engaging in a particular discourse about 
the same), with the Four Horsemen alternating between those roles. When it 
comes to their advocacy of Rationalism, it is sometimes unclear in which 
capacity they are writing. No doubt they sometimes guilelessly represent the 
latter-day inheritance of la coterie holbachique, reiterating its premises 
because their own perspectives are inexorably rooted therein. But 

34 See "The Taxonomy of Religion"; Evans-Pritchard's Theories of Primitive 
Religion places the status of those early theories in a more modern context. 
For Dennett's rejection of more modern anthropologists and historians, see 
also "The Diagnostics of Belief." 

35 BtS, 108 

36 "Introduction" 

ig8 Against the Irreligious Right 

Rationalism may also serve as a means of constraining debate, and there are 
indications throughout their books that the Four Horsemen have employed 
it to that end. 

Harris proves the least compromising in his use of the Reason as a 
discursive tool, and the whole of the second chapter of The End of Faith is 
given over to the purpose of constraining debate. So also is the dialogical 
opposition between Reason and religion as a form of irrationalism most 
explicit in Harris' work, as when he writes that the goal of that book is "to 
help close the door to a certain style of irrationality." 37 But precisely 
because Harris refuses to mince words on that count, he demands the least 

Dennett, as always, strikes the more solicitous pose. Consider, for 
example, his insistence that, "The idea is not to bulldoze people with 
science, but to get them to see that things they already know, or could know, 
have implications for how they should want to respond to the issues under 
discussion." 38 The first clause does, indeed, seem to embody the sort of 
"ecumenical effort" by which Dennett has proposed that "we can work 
together toward mutually comprehended and accepted visions of what is 
good and what is just." But what does it mean to say that you want people 
to see that what they "could know" ought to have implications for "how 
they should want to respond" to an issue? That seems to presuppose a 
preliminary goal of educating them about those things, so that they will 
want to respond as you suppose they should. This, it would seem, is what 
Dennett means when he speaks of the "political process of mutual 
persuasion and education" to which the discussion must inevitably tend. 39 
We have merely come full circle when, in the final paragraph of the book, 
he reveals that his "central policy recommendation is that we gently, firmly 
educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed 
choices about their lives." 40 Naturally, the education Dennett has in mind is 
overwhelmingly scientific, tending toward an emphasis on revived 
Rationalism. As a corollary he and Dawkins can be seen advocating the 
view that other forms of education may be regarded as child abuse. 41 

While the goal of empowering people to make truly informed decisions 
may seem entirely in accord with the principles of liberty, it is worth noting 
that by a rather circuitous route Dennett has advocated a kind of 
Rationalistic paternalism. After all, that education entails certain 

37 TEoF, 223 

38 BtS, 378 

39 BtS, 14 

40 BtS, 339 

41 See "The Irreligious Right" for more on this theme. 

The Heirs df La Coterie Hdlbachique igg 

implications for what the newly educated "should want." In this regard, 
Dennett falls directly in line with the Rationalist tradition of using education 
to determine the political trajectory of the society. In the context of "a 
political process of mutual persuasion and education," the polemical appeal 
of science is that, "if the science is done right, everybody has to accept the 
results." 42 Despite Dennett's disclaimer about science's potential use as a 
bulldozer, nearly every passage of Appendix B (entitled, with apparently 
unintentional irony, "More Questions About Science") functions to 
constrain discussion of the issues at stake. Its "invitation to an 
investigation" does not lack for conditions. 

In a clumsy and unsubstantiated metaphor, Dennett distinguishes between 
nationalism and "transnational religions" as "competing lifeboats" - 
meaning, presumably, strategies for dealing with the "failed states, ethnic 
violence, and grotesque injustice arising on all sides." 43 It does not seem to 
occur to him that nationalism may have been, in the first place, the cause of 
those crises. This allows Dennett to rebuke those who favor the religious 
lifeboats, since they are "enjoying the security of the democratic lifeboat 
while withholding your ultimate allegiance to it." The term "ultimate 
allegiance" should be enough to indicate that this is a way of couching 
Dennett's "questions about religion" in thoroughly political terms. He 
argues that, 

By availing yourself of the freedom granted you by a nation that 
honors the freedom of religion, you excuse yourself — as is your right 
(it's like "taking the Fifth Amendment" "when called to testify in 
court) — from helping your fellow citizens explore a problem of 
national and international security of the utmost urgency. You are a 
free rider, putting your loyalty to your religion ahead of your duty to 
your fellow citizens. 

He continues in this vein for quite sometime, apparently unembarrassed at 
having couched what is ostensibly a discussion about science in an appeal 
to nationalist feeling. If, in future editions, the publisher would like to make 
even more transparent the tactic of shaming the book's religious readers into 
attention, they might consider insetting a few photographs of the World 
Trade Center towers, or perhaps one of the Marine Corps War Memorial at 
Iwo Jima. The gist of Appendix B is that it is in the readers' interest to play 
Dennett's game, to play it by Dennett's rules, and to be good sports when 

42 BtS, 373 

43 BtS, 360 

200 Against the Irreligious Right 

they inevitably lose at it. If the aim was to forge an understanding, it has 
succeeded, but only in the illicit sense of the word "forge." 

If there is, as the Horsemen repeatedly insist, a long-standing dispute 
between science and religion, the Rationalistic use of science to constrain 
debate is almost certainly a proximate cause. Each of the Horsemen have, 
by one route or another, recommitted science to those political ends - 
Harris, through his account of belief and his argument for a "moral 
landscape'; Dawkins, by invoking evolution and the anthropic principle as 
part of an argument against theism; both Dawkins and Dennett, in their use 
of memetic accounts of the origin or religion; and Hitchens, by his reliance 
on Freudian notions of sexual health. In each case, science becomes the tool 
for educating the religious as to what they "could know" and "should want" 
as a consequence. 

Here again it grows difficult to draw a hard and fast line between 
perception and discourse, for the necessity of disseminating the fruits of 
reason figured heavily in the creed of the 18 th century Rationalists. "If it 
could be proved," writes Bury, 

that social evils "were due neither to innate and incorrigible disabilities 
of the human being nor to the nature of things, but simply to 
ignorance and prejudices, then the improvement of his state, and 
ultimately the attainment of felicity, "would be only a matter of 
illuminating ignorance and removing errors, of increasing knowledge 
and diffusing light. The growth of the "universal human reason" [...] 
must assure a happy destiny to mankind. 44 

To the extent that the New Atheists follow la coterie holbachique in 
associating progress with the reform of the ignorant and infelicitous, we 
might well expect them to approach Reason with a kind of evangelical 
fervor and missionary zeal. 

44 The Idea of Progress, 1 28 

A Drawing of Lines 

The Mormons, Hitchens tells us, 

have assembled a gigantic genealogical database at a huge repository 
in Utah, and are busy filling it "with the names of all the people "whose 
births, marriages, and deaths have been tabulated since records 
began. Every week, at special ceremonies in Mormon temples, the 
congregations meet and are given a certain quota of names of the 
departed to 'pray in' to their church. 1 

Though he sympathizes with the offended descendants of Holocaust victims 
who have been posthumously baptized into the Church of Latter-Day 
Saints, 2 it seems, to Hitchens, that "the followers of Mr. Smith should be 
congratulated for even the most simpleminded technological solution" to 
"the problem of what to do about those who were born before the exclusive 
'revelation,' or who died without ever having the opportunity to share in its 
wonders" 3 - a theological problem, since it is necessarily difficult to square 
the ignorance of past generations with the purported existence of a God who 
is both benevolent and jealous. 

If Hitchens proves more indulgent with posthumous conversion than he is 
with most other religious practices, it may be because a similar practice 
obtains among his fellow Horsemen. "I have no right to claim past 

1 GING, 167 

2 Mormons and Jews recently negotiated a pact exempting Jewish Holocaust 
victims from posthumous baptism; see "Mormons, Jews In New Pact On 
Baptisms," Gary Rosenblatt, The Jewish Times, September 1 , 2010. 

3 GING, 167-168 


202 Against the Irreligious Right 

philosophers as putative ancestors of atheism," Hitchens writes; 4 but he 
alone seems to have acknowledged that principle, and his adherence to it is 
uneven, at best. The Horsemen are, in a sense, baptizers of the dead. 

Emblematic of this posthumous conversion is Albert Einstein, though 
closer examination shows him to be an often ambiguous case. Many of his 
public declarations seem to have been calculated specifically to deflect 
attention from his personal convictions, whatever they may have been, and 
onto a critique of popular conceptions of religion. The general tenor seems 
to have been one of diplomacy over candor, with the result that there has 
been plenty of room in which to wrangle, so to speak, over possession of his 
body. "In greater numbers since his death," Dawkins says, "religious 
apologists understandably try to claim Einstein as one of their own." 5 
Understandable, perhaps, though not strictly logical - unless it is assumed 
that Einstein occupied a privileged position from which to declaim 
authoritatively on the truth value of religion. Presumably Dawkins sees the 
fallacy, but nevertheless plays the game. A struggle ensues, and the struggle 
implies a binary situation. Einstein is either for us, or against us. He belongs 
to the secular scientific establishment, or to the religious apologists. Neither 
side is willing to recognize that Einstein might not belong to either, or that it 
might be more appropriate to admiringly label Einstein what Harris 
dismissively calls Paul Tillich: a "blameless parish of one." 6 

To solve the problem, Dawkins puts forward the notion of "Einsteinian 
religion" as an alternative to "supernatural religion." 7 The problem is not 
that Einstein's apparently rather permissive view of gods and religions 
differed from that of Dawkins, but rather that, "Einstein sometimes invoked 
the name of God (and he is not the only atheistic scientist to do so), inviting 
misunderstanding by supernaturalists eager to misunderstand and claim so 
illustrious a thinker as their own." It would be a further mistake, Dawkins 
insists, to suppose that such carelessness indicated that Einstein was 
indifferent to the concerns that drive polemical atheism, or that Einstein was 
ignorant of the issues involved. Clergymen who "thought that Einstein, 
being theologically untrained, had misunderstood the nature of God" were 
wrong: "On the contrary, Einstein understood very well exactly what he was 
denying." 8 Precisely how Einstein knew, as well as how Dawkins knows 
that he knew, is never explained. 

4 GING, 263 

5 TGD, 37 

6 TEoF, 63 

7 TGD, 33-34 

8 TGD, 36 

A Drawing df Lines 203 

Nor does he explain why a man presumably concerned with atheism 
would invite so much confusion. Why use the term religion, repeatedly and 
pointedly, if what you mean is not religion at all? Perhaps Dawkins' 
knowledge of what Einstein meant when he said "God" or "religion" is 
another specimen of the clairvoyance that allowed him to discern the 
"unmistakable" progressive trend in human morality. 9 Dawkins simply 
knows, without being able to prove it, that when Einstein spoke of religion 
he "meant something entirely different from what is conventionally meant." 
That Dawkins makes his case for that "entirely different" understanding by 
juxtaposing quotations taken out of context and written over a period of 
many years does little to inspire confidence in his interpretation. 

I have noted elsewhere the ambiguity that plagues Dawkins' use of the 
term "supernatural." 10 Those difficulties necessarily complicate any attempt 
to understand the formal difference between the Einsteinian and 
supernatural variations on religion. Ultimately, it may be a distinction 
without any real diagnostic value, but that hardly matters, since Dawkins 
employs it specifically for its polemical interest. "My title, The God 
Delusion" he explains, "does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other 
enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to get 
Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to 
confuse." 11 The conceptual ambiguity allows Dawkins to assure us that, 
"Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be 
so when you examine their beliefs more deeply." 12 

He manages to rebaptize not only the dead, but the living as well. At 
times, these nominal Einsteinians seems less like voluntary recruits than the 
victims of a press gang. For example, he is willing to concede that, "The 
cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, in The Sacred Depths of Nature, sounds 
more religious than Hawking or Einstein. [...] She goes so far as to call 
herself a 'Religious Naturalist'." However, "a careful reading of her books 
shows that she is really as staunch an atheist as I am." 13 Though she 
qualifies as religious by her own understanding of the term, Dawkins is able 
to outright deny Goodenough 's self -identification by insisting on the 
overriding primacy of his own definition of religion. Simply lacking theism 
would seem to be enough, since theism is, on his account, "the factual 

9 For which, see "The Flattening of Historical Perspective" 

10 See "Covert Theology." 

11 TGD, 41 

12 TGD, 35 

13 TGD, 34 

204 Against the Irreligious Right 

premise of religion." 14 This precludes the possibility that a person could be 
both atheist and religious. Dawkins further gainsays Goodenough's sincerity 
by throwing emphasis on the "naturalist" portion of her self-description. In 
pointing out that "philosophers use 'naturalist' in a very different sense, as 
the opposite of supernaturalist," 15 he suggests that when Goodenough calls 
herself a "Religious Naturalist", we ought to understand the second term as 
the negation of the first. 

Goodenough, as it turns out, does not believe in gods, but insists that 
atheism does not preclude her from having, as she calls it, a "religious 
orientation." 16 Nor is it likely that many would consider Goodenough, who 
served for four years as the president of the Institute on Religion in an Age 
of Science, "really as staunch an atheist" as Dawkins, who has actively 
campaigned against religion for the better part of the last decade. That does 
not, however, stop him from making her an example of how the ascription 
of Einsteinian religion can be used to recruit against their will even those 
who are explicit in claiming a religious orientation. 

The process of impressing individual scientists and intellectuals to the 
cause can be stepped up by use of statistical surveys. Dawkins cites two 
studies to demonstrate that almost the whole of the scientific community - 
at least in Britain and the United States - are atheists. The figures for the 
U.S. come from a correspondence appearing in the magazine Nature, 
entitled "Leading scientists still reject God," 17 penned by Edward J. Larson 
and Larry Witham. That article draws its data from the prior publication of 
Larson and Witham 's findings, also published in Nature, but with the 
contrasting title, "Scientists are still keeping the faith." 18 That Dawkins 
chose the later, less methodological source is, in itself, telling. Part of his 
reason may be that it compares belief between "lesser" and "greater" 
scientists, with the greater scientists showing a much lower rate of positive 
belief. The suggestion quoted by the article is that of Peter Atkins saying, 
"You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don't think 
you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are 
such alien categories of knowledge." 19 That squares with Dawkins' own 

14 TGD, 189; that theme is further developed in "Covert Theology" and "The 
Taxonomy of Religion." 

15 TGD, 34 

16 "There Are Two Flavors of God People," Jill Neimark, BeliefNet: http:// 

17 Nature, Vol. 394, p. 313 (1998). 

18 Nature, Vol. 386, pp. 435-436 (1997). 

19 Nature, Vol. 394, op cit. 

A Drawing df Lines 205 

position, apparently formulated on a priori grounds: "It is completely as I 
would expect that American scientists are less religious than the American 
public generally, and that the most distinguished scientists are the least 
religious of all." 20 Declarations of that sort are meant to throw professedly 
religious scientists on the defensive by asserting an either/or relationship: 
you are either a scientist or a religious believer, but you cannot be both. 

As it turns out, the article Dawkins chooses to cite proves less specific 
about the questions asked in the survey. To facilitate comparison, Larson 
and Witham employed the same questions formulated by James Leuba 
when he first conducted the survey in 1916: 

a. I believe in a God in intellectual and effective communication "with 
humankind, i.e., a God to "whom one may pray in expectation of 
receiving an answer. By "answer," I mean more than the subjective, 
psychological effect of prayer. 

b. I do not believe in God as defined above. 

c. I have no definite belief regarding this question. 21 

In the second Nature article, the one cited by Dawkins, those options are 
rendered by the shorthand formulae, "Personal belief," "Personal disbelief," 
and "Doubt or agnosticism," 22 which are ambiguous enough to allow for a 
broader range of interpretation. It ought to go without saying that the 45.3% 
who answered b. in the original survey do not necessarily qualify as 
atheists; the way the options are phrased leave open the possibility that they 
believe in a god or gods defined some other way than in option a. There 
simply is no option offered that could be confidently interpreted as a total 
disavowal of theism. Nevertheless, Dawkins interprets the survey of the 
"greater" scientists (meaning, those elected to the National Academy of 
Sciences) as an "overwhelming preponderance of atheists." 23 

It would be interesting to make the same sort of comparison with the 
research Dawkins cites for Britain, to the effect that 78.8% of Fellows of the 
Royal Society, England's foremost scientific institution, are atheists. 
Unfortunately the study by R. Elisabeth Cornwell and Michael Stirrat, 
which was unpublished when The God Delusion went to print in 2006, and 
from which Dawkins was allowed "to quote preliminary results," apparently 
remains unpublished today, a full four years later. Dawkins appears to be the 

20 TGD, 127 

21 Nature, Vol. 386, op cit. 

22 Nature, Vol. 394, op cit. 

23 TGD, 126 

206 Against the Irreligious Right 

only person to have referenced it directly; all other citations I have found 
are to Dawkins' pre-publication summation. The only option Dawkins 
quotes directly reads, "I believe in a personal God, that is one who takes an 
interest in individuals, hears and answers prayers, is concerned with sin and 
transgressions, and passes judgement," 24 which suggests the same sort of 
incomplete battery offered by the Larson and Witham survey. It is 
presumably by that standard that the study found "a massive 213 
unbelievers and a mere 12 believers." But, of course, the belief in question 
is of a very specific kind. 

There is then, a disparity between the questions asked by actual research 
into the theistic beliefs of scientists, and the conclusions Dawkins attempts 
to derive from such research. His formulation of Einsteinian religion as an 
excusable alternative to supernatural religion provides a means of 
presenting a unified front, in spirit if not in reality, and Dawkins can further 
sharpen those indistinct borders by simply calling into question the sincerity 
of those who refuse to go quietly. Some scientists, he argues, maintain the 
charade of religious allegiance only "out of loyally to the tribe," as he 
depicts Martin Rees having told him. Robert Winston he challenged "to 
admit that his Judaism was of exactly this character and that he didn't really 
believe in anything supernatural." 25 Winston, in return, has called The God 
Delusion "divisive" and "irresponsible." 26 

In light of that pattern, is it too much to suggest that the fault may not lie 
with the nominal Einsteinians? The standard to which they are expected to 
adhere may simply be too exacting. As Dennett says, 

Even deep in the trenches of cognitive neuroscience, I find annoying 
echoes and shadows of this prejudice, "with us liardheaded' 
materialists forever on the defensive against the now practically 
extinct species of 'tenderhearted' dualists, who seem (to laypeople at 
least) to occupy the moral high ground simply because they believe in 
the immateriality of the soul." 27 

That tone of annoyance rings throughout much of the Four Horsemen's 
work. Even so pre-eminent a critic of religion as the author of Why I Am Not 
a Christian sometimes fails to live up, but Dawkins is willing to explain 

24 TGD, 128 

25 TGD, 35 

26 "Robert Winston criticizes dangerous 'science delusion'," The Guardian, 
Sept. 12, 2008. 

27 BtS, 306 

A Drawing df Lines 20J 

away such breaches. Of Bertrand Russell's uncertainty over the Ontological 
Argument, Dawkins hastens to "suspect that he was an exaggeratedly fair- 
minded atheist, over-eager to be disillusioned if logic seemed to require 
it." 28 Better such solicitousness than that Russell should have ever actually 
considered the argument sound on rational grounds. Any deviation from the 
party line is met with incredulity, as when Dawkins writes, "I simply do not 
believe that [Stephen Jay] Gould could possibly have meant much of what 
he wrote in Rock of Ages." 29 Flat denial rescues both men from the 
possibility that they wrote such things because they believed them. 

These latter strategies allow Harris and Hitchens to rescue a number of 
other culture heroes from the appearance of sincerity. The general form of 
their argument is that, "Religious moderation is the product of secular 
knowledge and scriptural ignorance - and it has no bona fides, in religious 
terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism." 30 Once that principle is 
granted, religious moderates of all stripes may be forcibly recruited to the 
cause of secular atheism. In effect, that allows the polemical atheist to claim 
the most pacific elements of the religious community, while simultaneously 
keeping those most prone to violence squarely confined to the religionist 


An illustrative example may be seen in Harris' response to research on the 
topic of suicide terrorism. The political scientist Robert A. Pape has argued 
"that suicide terrorism is best understood as a strategic means to achieve 
certain well-defined nationalist goals and should not be considered a 
consequence of religious ideology." 31 That conclusion was drawn on the 
basis of a study that, at first glance, would seem to be exactly the sort of 
inquiry Harris demands throughout The End of Faith. If Harris resists its 
conclusions, that may be simply because they fail to stand in support of his 

As director of the University of Chicago's Project on Suicide Terrorism, 
Pape surveyed every report of suicide terrorism that took place between 

28 TGD, 106 

29 TGD, 81 

30 TEoF, 21 

31 TEoF, 260, fn. 2; the paraphrase belongs to Harris. For Pape's own 
explanation, see "The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," American 
Political Science Review 97, no 3 (2003), 20-32, or the fuller account in 
Dying to Win (Random House :2005). 

208 Against the Irreligious Right 

1980 and 2003, taking into account the social and political contexts of each, 
as well as the religious affiliation of the suicide terrorist, whenever 
discernible. Harris' response seems to sweep all of that away in favor of a 
more impressionistic criteria that is, perhaps by design, not subject to peer 
review. "Like most commentators on this infernal wastage of human life," 
Harris retorts, "Pape seems unable to imagine what it would be like to 
actually believe what millions of Muslims profess to believe." 32 The view 
Harris prefers - even, apparently, the exclusion of actual systematic study of 
the phenomenon - is that, "Suicide bombing, in the Muslim world at least, 
is an explicitly religious phenomenon that is inextricable from notions of 
martyrdom and jihad, predictable on their basis, and sanctified by their 
logic. It is no more secular an activity than prayer is." 33 

Elsewhere, Harris dismisses the suggestion that Sri Lanka's Liberation 
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (who had, until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the same 
year that The End of Faith was released, accounted for about half of all such 
attacks) represent a secular example of suicide terrorism by saying that, 
"While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they are 
Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature 
of life and death." 34 Does that indicate a double standard? In application, the 
principle seems to be that anything good done by religious adherents 
qualifies as moderation, and is thus the result of secular influence, while 
any religious association whatsoever must be taken as the motivation 
whenever radically destructive behavior is involved. Hitchens makes much 
the same argument with regards to the Japanese Kamikaze during World 
War II, a tact that might seem controversial with regard to Harris, who 
argues that Buddhism "is not a religion of faith, or a religion at all, in the 
Western sense." This despite the "millions of Buddhists who do not seem to 
know this." 35 Indeed, it would draw Harris into fatal self-contradiction to 
classify Buddhism as a religion, since he considers himself a Buddhist and 
recommends "the esoteric teachings of Buddhism" as "the most complete 
methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of 
consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma." 36 But no doubt the principle 
is flexible enough that Harris could join in Hitchens' condemnation of such 
"'Eastern' solutions" by arguing that Japanese nationalist imperialism was, 
itself, a strain of religious fundamentalism. Each of his fellow Horsemen, 

32 TEoF, 260; cf. "The Diagnostics of Belief" for more on Harris' use of this 
criteria for inquiry. 

33 TEoF, 261 

34 TEoF, 239, fn. 2 

35 TEoF, 293, fn. 12; see also "The Taxonomy of Religion." 

36 TEoF, 293-294, fn. 12 

A Drawing df Lines 20Q 

not excluding Hitchens, have equivocated over the religious status of 
Buddhism, equitably leaving room for Harris on their side of the line. 37 

Just how far is it possible to stretch that principle of inclusion? As though 
to demonstrate, Harris argues that, though "Gandhi was undoubtedly the 
twentieth century's most influential pacifist," he was also "a religious 
dogmatist" whose application of the principles of pacifism was "ethically 
suspect." 38 In particular, he deplores Gandhi's suggestion that Jews could 
have resisted the Holocaust by committing mass suicide. Hitchens takes up 
this theme, by depicting Gandhi's struggle against British imperialism as a 
struggle toward a foregone conclusion. 39 "There is no dishonor in that," 
Hitchens allows, 

but it is exactly his religious convictions that make his legacy a 
dubious rather than a saintly one. To state the matter shortly: he 
"wanted India to revert to a village-dominated and primitive 'spiritual' 
society, he made power-sharing "with Muslims much harder, and he 
was quite prepared to make hypocritical use of violence when he 
thought it might suit him. 40 

That last charge is rather trumped up, since the "hypocritical use of 
violence" Hitchens seems to have in mind was really nothing more than 
Gandhi seizing on the opportunities afforded by the shifting of British 
attention to conflicts elsewhere in the Empire. The other two charges 
Hitchens brings against him can just as easily be explained in political and 
historical as in religious terms. But the point is that both Harris' and 
Hitchens' interpretations allow a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist like Gandhi to be 
classed alongside suicide bombers, and precisely where Harris' principle 
might otherwise be taken to imply that Gandhi's had inherited nonviolent 
resistance from modern secularism. 

Similarly, God is Not Great almost never mentions a clerical acquaintance 
without hastening to point out their personal failings. Thus we encounter the 
headmaster who, despite being a "sadist and closeted homosexual," 
instructed a young Hitchens on the value of faith, "(and whom I have long 
since forgiven because he ignited my interest in history and lent me my first 

37 BtS, 8; TGD, 59; GING, 199. 

38 TEoF, 202 

39 It is likely both authors here reflect the influence of Orwell's "Reflections 
on Gandhi." 

40 G/A/G, 182 

210 Against the Irreligious Right 

copy of P. G. Wodehouse)." 41 Likewise, we are told that the Greek 
Orthodox archbishop who presided over both Hitchens' communion into the 
church as well as his marriage, "later became an enthusiastic cheerleader 
and fund-raiser for his fellow Orthodox Serbian mass murderers Radovan 
Karadazic and Ratko Mladic, who filled countless mass graves all over 
Bosnia" 42 ; and so on. Either claim might be quite true, but their value as 
evidence in favor of a general point is limited by their anecdotal nature. 

Or consider the case of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Hitchens 
admits that "the rhetoric with which King addressed his followers was 
designed to evoke the very story that they all knew best - the one that 
begins when Moses first tells Pharaoh to 'Let my people go.'" 43 Yet 
Hitchens presents the religious language as a calculated, perhaps cynical, 
rhetorical strategy. "If the population had been raised from its mother's knee 
to hear the story of Xenophon's Anabasis, and the long wearying dangerous 
journey of the Greeks to their triumphant view of the sea, that allegory 
might have done just as well," he argues. "As it was, though, the 'Good 
Book' was the only point of reference that everybody had it common." 44 
Hitchens goes so far as to doubt that King had any religious convictions at 
all, on the premise that he did not, to Hitchens' satisfaction, preach the 
doctrine that "those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with 
any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences 
of their own brute selfishness and stupidity." 45 Hitchens concludes of that, 
"In no real as opposed to nominal sense, was he a Christian." 46 Presumably, 
the three years King spent at Crozer Lheological Seminary, as well as the 
four years spent studying systematic theology at Boston University, were 
part of his grand plan to masquerade as one. 

The effect of a similar interpretation may be evident in some of the 
research that Dennett has produced since the publication of Breaking the 
Spell. Shortly after the release of "Preachers who are not Believers," 47 the 
online journal Killing the Buddha issued a critique raising many of these 
same questions. Its author, Daniel Silliman, complained that, "Dennett and 
LaScola dismiss the nuance in what their subjects say, foisting a severely 
restrictive framework onto the ministers' carefully thought-out positions. 
Even in the title, the study labels them 'not believers,' though that doesn't 

4 1 GING, 3-4 

&GING, 16 

43 GING, 173-174 

"GING, 175 

45 GING, 176 

4e GING, 176 

47 See "The Diagnostics of Belief" for a closer reading. 

A Drawing df Lines 211 

really describe them at all." 48 In response, "Rick," one of the pseudonymous 
"closeted nonbelievers" from the study, praised Silliman's article, claiming 
to have told Dennett and LaScola "that I would be willing to own the label 
of 'different believer' instead; that is, 'different' from a literalist and a 
believer in supernatural theism which seem to be the definitions he mostly 
uses when he attributes atheism to anyone not in that rather narrow 
ballpark." 49 This makes for a curious complement to Dawkins and Harris' 
efforts to draw the lines inclusive of the scientific community as a whole. 
Dennett's premise of "belief in belief" aims at including much of the 
religious establishment as well, and by a similar tactic of gainsaying what 
they themselves profess. 

Interestingly, Hitchens' reinterpretation of the work of Martin Luther 
King Jr. and Dennett's study of "unbelieving clergy" recruit from the 
religious establishment at much the same point where Dawkins would 
locate the highest propensity towards atheism within the scientific 
establishment, namely among its institutional elite. The early expansion of 
Christianity throughout pagan Europe was achieved in large part by first 
converting elite like the kings of pagan tribes; this would almost seem an 
analogous strategy. Effectively, it cuts off the "lowest common 
denominator" (as §4 of the eighth chapter of Breaking the Spell is called) 
from the authoritative source of its doctrine. That gambit is all the more 
daring if we follow Dennett's suggestion that those who are not authorities 
on religious doctrine "aren't really in a good position to judge whether 
[they] actually believe (passionately or otherwise) in the God of [their] 
particular creed, or in some other God." 50 Left in disarray, the theism of the 
unwashed mob would presumably dissipate for lack of compelling 

But Dennett himself points to (then recoils from) an even more sweeping 
possibility. Elsewhere we have examined his argument concerning "belief in 
belief." 51 "Such a person," he says of atheistic believers in belief, "doesn't 
believe in God but nevertheless thinks that believing in God would be a 
wonderful state of mind to be in, if only that could be arranged. People who 
believe in belief in God try to get others to believe in God and, whenever 
they find their own belief in God flagging, do whatever they can to restore 
it." 52 Dennett thereby sets a clever trap for self-described theists. By means 

48 "Faithful Apostacy," Daniel Silliman, April 8, 2010 ( http:// ) 


50 BtS, 224 

51 Cf. "The Diagnostics of Belief." 

52 BtS, 221 

212 Against the Irreligious Right 

of the principle of "belief in belief," nearly any profession of belief can be 
surreptitiously converted into a tacit expression of mere belief in belief. 
"Given the way religious concepts and practices have been designed," he 
writes two pages on, "the very behaviors that would be clear evidence of 
belief in God are also behaviors that would be clear evidence of (only) 
belief in belief in God." 53 The apotheosis of this line of reasoning would be 
that there is no actual belief in God, only profession. Yet, here he retreats. 
Of the premise "that belief in God exists," Dennett parenthetically asks, 
"who could doubt that?" 54 The certainty that belief in God exists seems 
impossible to reconcile with the principle that we can never distinguish 
between belief and mere belief in belief. Nor does Dennett attempt to 
resolve it, which may suggest that he feels some vested interest in 
maintaining the reality of a dispute between atheism and a more-than- 
nominal theism - or at least that he feels a vested interest in professing it. 


In all of the preceding, the reader may discern some echo of the objection 
that "No true Scotsman would do such a thing." As it so happens, a rather 
indecorous public exchange passed between Dawkins and Anthony Flew, 
the philosopher who coined that very fallacy. Flew (or maybe, as Dawkins 
would have it, "a Christian ghost writer, Roy Varghese," secretly writing on 
Flew's behalf) denounced Dawkins as a "secularist bigot" and questioned 
Dawkins' use of quotation to recruit Einstein to his cause. Dawkins, in 
return, gallantly rushed to Flew's defense by suggesting that Flew was too 
infirm to have actually read The God Delusion or to have written the book 
that, at the time, was being trumpeted as evidence of Flew's conversion to 
theism. 55 If Dawkins lost little respect for Flew over the incident, it may be 
because he seems to have had precious little respect for him in the first 
place. In a footnote to the excuse made on behalf of Bertrand Russell and 
quoted above, Dawkins compared the two philosophers, saying that, "On 
the other hand, Russell was a great philosopher. Russell won the Nobel 
Prize. Maybe Flew's alleged conversion will be rewarded with the 
Templeton Prize." 56 This might seem rough handling for a man whose 

53 BtS, 223 

54 BtS, 221 

55 "Richard Dawkins branded 'secular bigot' by veteran philosopher," The 
Telegraph, Aug. 2, 2008. 

56 TGD, 106 

A Drawing df Lines 213 

contribution to contemporary atheist thought is all but immeasurable, 57 but 
Flew had no doubt become intractable and immune to reform. The 
embarrassment he caused simply could not be ameliorated by invoking 
Einsteinian religion. 

To recognize the slight in Dawkins' mention of the Templeton Prize, it is 
first necessary to understand that the rhetorical struggle over public 
intellectuals like those mentioned above means more than the recruitment of 
a few individuals capable of reflecting an aura of respectability onto 
atheism and irreligion. Since at least the 18 th century there has been a long- 
standing and, at times, acrimonious dispute over the status of religion in any 
society informed by modern science. 58 Since the publication of The End of 
Faith, the dispute has gone through another one of its periodic flare-ups. 
Dawkins and Harris, along with related public figures like P.Z. Myers and 
Reason Project alumnus Jerry Coyne, have argued in a variety of 
publications against the "accommodationist" stance, which holds that 
science and religion are, or at least can be made, compatible. Perhaps the 
most celebrated example of modern accommodationist theory is Stephen 
Jay Gould's "Non-Overlapping Magisteria," which holds that, when they 
keep to their proper place, science and religion need rarely, if ever, come 
into conflict. "The lack of conflict between science and religion," Gould 
wrote, "arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of 
professional expertise - science in the empirical constitution of the 
universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the 
spiritual meaning of our lives." 59 Dawkins' earlier quoted exclamation of 
disbelief was made precisely to rescue Gould from such accommodationist 
beliefs. Both he and Harris offer arguments to the end that science can 
provide "spiritual meaning," and The Moral Landscape attempts to make 
the case for a science of ethics. 

For non-accommodationists like Dawkins and Harris, science and religion 
necessarily come into conflict, and in all such cases, science wins. But such 
differences of opinion hardly explain the public debates that arise. Unlike 
the ongoing debate between the scientific community and Creationist 
educators, a notable feature of the exchange that took place in the wake of 
the publication of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's book 
Unscientific American: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future 60 
was the relative absence of religious spokespersons or outright skeptics of 

57 See, for example, "Theology and Falsification," which concisely 
anticipated much of Breaking the Spell by nearly 60 years. 

58 Cf. "The Heirs of La Coterie Holbachique" 

59 "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," Natural History, 106, March, 1997, p. 16 

60 Basic Books:2009 

214 Against the Irreligious Right 

science. Both sides of the debate were in favor of broader acceptance of 
contemporary scientific models and tended to be allied against, for example, 
religious opponents of evolutionary theory. The argument over 
accommodationism is, first and foremost, a debate between colleagues. All 
of which suggests that what may really be at stake is the question of 
solidarity to the cause. Thus, the studies Dawkins used to "discover" a 
"preponderance of atheists" in the top ranks of the scientific community are 
supposed to point the reader to "the polar opposition between the religiosity 
of the American public at large and the atheism of the intellectual elite." 61 

And here we draw near to the point. That Einstein's memory apparently 
will not be allowed to occupy the ambiguous space Einstein the man 
seemed so intent on constructing is emphatically not the result of idle 
curiosity. A concern over identity compels both groups to draw their lines 
with reference to the figures they think will be most beneficial to their 
cause. They are, in a sense, building armies. Harris illustrates the point 
when, expanding on the unfortunate rhetoric of a "clash of civilizations" 
between Islam and the West, he writes that, 

we have a problem "with Christianity and Judaism as "well. It is time we 
recognize that all reasonable men and women have a common enemy. 
It is an enemy so near to us, and so deceptive, that we keep its 
counsel even as it threatens to destroy the very possibility of human 
happiness. Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself. 62 

During the Second World War, Wehrmacht soldiers wore belt buckles 
reading Gott mit uns, "God with us," as though the Germans had somehow 
managed to recruit the Creator. The posthumous recruitment of prominent 
historical figures functions much the same way, drawing with it the specter 
of authority and respectability. For the purposes of this inquiry, it matters 
little which side, if any, the more controversial figures like Einstein would 
have actually endorsed. The more crucial interest lies with the struggle. Just 
as Hitchens locates in the Mormon ritual of "praying in" the dead a kind of 
embarrassment over the problem of theodicy, certain figures prove 
embarrassingly resistant to attempts to draft an atheist or irreligious front. If 
Einstein had made one unambiguous and undeniable declaration of 
solidarity with the sort of polemical atheism Dawkins endorses, he likely 
would have warranted far fewer mentions in The God Delusion and its 
literary kin. The lengths to which apologists for both camps will go in order 

61 TGD, 127 

62 TEoF, 131 

A Drawing df Lines 215 

to stake their claim on a liminal figure like Einstein demonstrates the 
tactical value placed on him. 

Some figures, on the other hand, are simply too recalcitrant to recruit. 
When that happens, it becomes technically necessary to denounce them. If 
possible, it may even be warranted to place stumbling blocks in their paths. 
An eminent scientist like Francis Collins might seem, at first glance, an 
enviable acquisition to the menagerie of scientists collected above. As 
Harris acknowledges, "Dr. Collins' credentials are impeccable: he is a 
physical chemist, a medical geneticist and the former head of the Human 
Genome Project." 63 But Collins also happens to be a committed convert to 
Christianity, and "by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict 
between science and religion." 64 No suggestion that Collins could not 
possibly have meant what he wrote 65 would serve to believably usher him 
into the atheist camp. Which might go some distance towards explaining 
why Harris wrote not one, but two articles opposing President Obama's 
nomination of Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health. 66 This, 
like Harris' op-ed concerning Sarah Palin, is the point at which such line- 
drawing ascends (or is it a descent?) to the level of political action. 

As with the posthumous baptism of ambiguous scientific figures into 
Einsteinian religion, the political lines can likewise be drawn retroactively. 
Dawkins presumes to agree with Hitchens in thinking it "likely that 
Jefferson was an atheist," 67 despite the fact that Hitchens himself supposes 
it better to "reserve judgment." 68 In his own book, Hitchens refers to 
Jefferson as a deist, 69 but Dawkins simply drafts the deists en masse, 
thereby resolving the discrepancy. Maybe not all of the Founding Fathers of 
the American Republic make for such easy allies, but Dawkins blithely 
indicates that here too the lines are drawn in his favor, by claiming "it has 
been argued that the greatest of them might have been atheists." 70 How 

63 "Science Is in the Details," Sam Harris, The New York Times, A12, July 27, 

64 ibid. 

65 specifically in The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for 
Belief (Free Press:2006). 

66 The second, "The Strange Case of Francis Collins," was first published 
August 5, 2009, at 

the strange case of francis collins2/ 

67 TGD, 64 

68 Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, quoted in TGD, 64. 
69 GING, 119 

70 TGD, 60 

2l6 Against the Irreligious Right 

fortunate for the Horsemen that they should get to claim all of the 
"greatest," and not have to suffer the company of those who were only 
mediocre or dismal. 


If I have devoted a great deal of consideration to the lines drawn by the 
Four Horsemen, it is because issues of identity never take on more 
significance than during times of war. Nor have they been unmindful of 
their own reputations. One interviewer insisted that Dawkins "is probably 
not joking at all when he says 'I want to make damn sure there's a tape 
recorder running for my last words,'" 71 to protect against rumors of a 
deathbed conversion of the sort imputed to Darwin. Two weeks after 
emergency surgery to replace an aorta and aortic arch, Dennett penned an 
essay for the online journal Edge, presumably to head off speculation that 
he had, like logical positivist A.J. Ayer, experienced a near-death epiphany 
capable of throwing his atheism into doubt. 72 Both Dawkins and Dennett 
handle such ruminations in the spirit of good humor, but given the part each 
has played in the "praying in" of liminal figures, perhaps there is, after all, a 
serious edge to such proceedings. No one wants to be painted as a traitor, 
particularly when their own mortality cuts off any hope of defending their 
reputation from the claim. 

When the primary method of resolving disputes is war - be it the war of 
words indicated by the word polemic, or the threat of literal violence - 
distinguishing between enemy and ally becomes an activity of paramount 
importance. Dawkins acknowledges as much. Taking a softer line than 
Harris, he writes that, "it is frequently and rightly said that wars, and feuds 
between religious groups or sects, are seldom actually about theological 
disagreements." 73 He goes so far as to specify that "of course the troubles in 
Northern Island are political. There really has been economic and political 
oppression of one group by another [...] There really are genuine grievances 
and injustices, and these seem to have little to do with religion." 74 But the 
false note of accord quickly fades. Coming to the point, he argues that 
"without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to 

71 "People say I'm strident," Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian, October 25, 

72 "Thank Goodness!", Daniel Dennett, November 3, 2006, http:// 
www.edqe.orq/3rd culture/dennett06/dennett06 index.html 

73 TGD, 294 

74 TGD, 294 

A Drawing df Lines 21J 

oppress and whom to avenge." 75 This is a subtle but significant variation on 
a trope of Enlightenment anti-clericalism: that most historical conflict can 
be explained by reference to religious motivation. Later on, in fact, we find 
Dawkins straying from his recognition of the political nature of the conflict. 
'"Loyalists,"' he writes, "is the mealy-mouthed Northern Ireland 
euphemism for Protestants, just as 'Nationalists' is the euphemism for 
Catholics. People who do not hesitate to brand children 'Catholics' or 
'Protestants' stop short of applying those same religious labels - far more 
appropriately - to adult terrorists and mobs." 76 If the conflict truly is, as 
Dawkins says, political, then why would it not be more accurate to say, 
rather, that Catholic is, in that context, a euphemism for Nationalist? 

Likewise, Hitchens almost acknowledges the co-optation of religious 
identity when he recounts the Belfast joke asking whether a man is 
"Protestant or Catholic atheist." He takes this as evidence of "how the 
obsession has rotted even the legendary local sense of humor," but then 
goes on to to call "rival nationalisms" the "ostensible pretext" for the 
region's ongoing conflict, rendering it questionable just whose sense of 
humor has been rotted by what obsession. 77 In Dawkins' account, which 
Hitchens seems to share at times, religion is not the direct cause of most 
wars, but it does provide a mechanism for constructing the identities that 
make war possible. As such, it proves uniquely agile as a facilitator of war. 

Dawkins follows the Irish example with a capsule version of a history of 
Indian conflict. "In India at the time of partition, more than a million people 
were massacred in religious riots between Hindus and Muslims (and fifteen 
million displaced from their homes)," he writes. "There were no badges 
other than religious ones with which to label whom to kill. Ultimately, there 
was nothing to divide them but religion." 78 This recalls Harris' 
interpretation of the Gujurat riots, 79 and the same objections apply. All of 
which ought to make plain the fallacy in Dawkins' overarching argument. 
Any number of identity distinctions can serve as the chalk by which enemy 
lines are drawn. These are not limited to language, race, ethnicity, party 
affiliation, vocation, and yes, religion. When Jonathan Swift threw the 
Lilliputians and the Blefuscudians into war over the trivial issue of which 
end of an egg ought to be broken, the satire cuts precisely because nearly 
any trumped-up difference can be made the rallying point for partisans. It 
would, however, cut the effectiveness of Dawkins' historical critique to 

75 TGD, 294 

76 TGD, 381 

77 GING, 18 

78 TGD, 295 

79 Cf. "The Flattening of Historical Perspective." 

2l8 Against the Irreligious Right 

suppose that, had there been no religious difference between the Irish and 
British, or the Indians and Pakistanis, some other difference would have 
been found. Nor does the history of human conflict lack for examples of 
groups reviving, or even inventing out of whole cloth, "traditions" that 
emphasize their vested stake in conflicting identities. 80 So while there is 
nothing unreasonable in pointing out that religion can be made to serve as a 
label for dividing a population into enemies and allies, it is morbidly 
laughable to suggest, as Dawkins does, that "without religion, and 
religiously segregated education, the divide simply would not be there." 81 

The acute irony here is that the polemical atheists have expended a great 
deal of effort in creating just that sort of distinct yet malleable division. 
Atheism becomes a kind of totem around which the Horsemen build their 
tribe. The sociologist Ruth Benedict, writing in the 1930s, remarked that, 
given our parochialism in other realms, "we are justified in a little 
skepticism as to whether our sophistication in the matter of religion is due 
to the fact that we have outgrown naive childishness, or simply to the fact 
that religion is no longer the area of life in which the important modern 
battles are staged." 82 The discourse of polemical atheism strives to return 
religion to its prior status as a staging ground. This is nowhere more clear 
than in The End of Faith, where the syntax of battle rings throughout, and 
division - both between ally and enemy as well as within the enemy ranks - 
is a recurring motif. But it is likewise implicit in the work of his companion 

It may seem alarmist to say so. Some have argued that atheism is 
inherently pacifistic. No doubt Dawkins believes it when he claims that, 
"Individual atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the 
name of atheism," 83 or when he asks, "why would anyone go to war for the 
sake of an absence of belief?" 84 The question is, perhaps, rhetorical, but the 
books of the Four Horsemen provide their own answer. When discourse 
presents religion as inherently evil, the rationale for declaring war is 
unmistakeable, however unintentional. And though the authors themselves 
no doubt value peace, literally militant atheists would hardly need twist the 
polemic of the Four Horsemen to turn it into the slogans of a very real 
conflict. The Four Horsemen themselves would no doubt eschew the 
suggestion that they have provided the rationale for literal conflict; if they 

80 Cf. eg. The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 
eds. (Cambridge:1983) 

81 TGD, 294 

82 Patterns of Culture, (1934) 

83 TGD, 315 

84 TGD, 316 

A Drawing df Lines 2ig 

like, they may think of it as a "free-floating rationale" to which they have 
merely given definition because they were unable to withstand such potent 

Whether we call it a meme or a motif, the language of violence recurs 
throughout the work of the Four Horsemen. Consider, for example, the 
martial tones in which Dawkins describes the impact of Origin of the 
Species. The young Darwin, he writes, admired Paley's Natural Theology, 
but "the mature Darwin blew it out of the water. There has probably never 
been a more devastating rout of popular belief by clever reasoning than 
Charles Darwin's destruction of the argument from design." 85 One would 
almost suppose that Darwin had set out to defeat it. Of a particular passage 
on the evolution of the eye, Dawkins presents Darwin as "drawing his 
opponents towards him so that the punch, when it came, struck the 
harder." 86 This vision of Darwin the pugilist sits uneasily with the more 
diplomatic view of Darwin we see in his Autobiography or any number of 
biographies written about him. The picture Dawkins gives may be inflected 
with the Huxley's reputation as "Darwin's bulldog," or with his own as 
"Darwin's Rottweiler." 

It would be easy enough to dismiss such flourishes as mere poetic license 
were they not part of the larger pattern of choosing sides. The least that can 
be said in their defense is that, for three of the Four Horsemen, the 
polemical stance remains relatively muted; it reaches its apogee in the 
Harris' books and articles. "The contest between our religions is zero-sum," 
he argues. "Religious violence is still with us because our religions are 
intrinsically hostile to one another. Where they appear otherwise, it is 
because secular knowledge and secular interests are restraining the most 
lethal improprieties of faith." 87 Scrutiny of religion has recently become 
critical "because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, 
and nuclear weapons," 88 making it possible, perhaps even "all but certain 
that our newspapers will begin to read more and more like the book of 
Revelation." 89 Dennett cites similar concerns to give his own inquiry 
urgency, even delving into the dubious field of "lifeboat ethics" to make his 
case. 90 Hitchens concurs that, "as I write, a version of the Inquisition is 

85 TGD, 103 

86 TGD, 149 

87 TEoF, 225 

88 TEoF, 14 

89 TEoF, 152 

90 BtS, 360 

220 Against the Irreligious Right 

about to lay hands on a nuclear weapon. [...] This puts the confrontation 
between faith and civilization on a whole new footing." 91 

Harris connects the potential for wide scale destruction and violence to 
the religious belief in the immanent end of the world. The irony is that, in 
doing so, he has constructed just as potent an Apocalyptic vision. "Imagine 
what it would be like for our descendants to experience the fall of 
civilization," he writes in the Epilogue to The End of Faith. 

Imagine failures of reasonableness so total that our largest bombs 
finally fall upon our largest cities in defense of our religious 
differences. What "would it be like for the unlucky survivors of such a 
holocaust to look back upon the hurtling career of human stupidity 
that led them over the precipice? 

And then, as though the relocate the Apocalypse to the present: "This world 
is simply ablaze with bad ideas." 92 

Never does he give any indication that he recognizes how such rhetoric 
could contribute to literal militancy. Yet, the equation should be plain to see. 
If religions are intrinsically hostile to one another, and if the development of 
chemical, biological and nuclear weapons has made it all but inevitable that 
such conflicts will result in virtual Apocalypse, then does it not follow, as 
Harris suggests in the case of "Muslim societies," that secular society "will 
be obliged to protect our interests in the world with force?" 93 Perhaps this is 
doing damage to Harris' intended argument by taking these quotations out 
of their proper context, but is a secularist with violent proclivities any less 
likely to read them out of context than a religious apologist who wants to 
paint Harris in the worst possible tones? The point is that, in constructing 
their unremittingly negative discourse about religion, faith and theism, the 
polemical atheists have made it possible to justify what some of them seem 
to think impossible: war in the name of atheism. 

Here, we are thrown on the fork of a dilemma. As I wrote in the 
introduction to these essays, taking these arguments seriously often means 
being unkind to their authors. If we are generous to the polemical atheists, 
then we will accept at face value their conviction that atheism is inherently 
incapable of fomenting conflict. But if we take their arguments seriously, 
how can we avoid the conclusion that, in the way that they have argued for 
atheism and irreligion, they have provided the rationale for just such 
conflict? Harris in particular insists that beliefs logically entail behaviors, 

91 GING, 280 

92 TEoF, 224 

93 TEoF, 152 

A Drawing df Lines 221 

and that if we want to understand the violent behavior of a given person, we 
can do no better than to recognize violence as the logical consequence of 
what that person claims to believe. Harris, of course, is talking about the 
suicide bomber's purported belief in the promise of paradise, but gives no 
reason to suppose that secular beliefs should not be just as consequential. 
And yet, on the whole, I am inclined to believe - even if it means 
temporarily ceasing to take them seriously - that the Four Horsemen are 
sincere when they say they are not advocating violence in the name of 
atheism. Rather, they are merely being naive about the way in which their 
polemic will be received, if not now, then by posterity. By no means am I 
suggesting that they have intended it to be received as a call to arms, merely 
that such is the potential consequence of an irresponsible rhetoric. 

Nor is outright physical conflict likely to spontaneously erupt. As with 
other modern wars, any war in the name of atheism is likely to be preceded 
by a phase of political struggle. The decidedly uncivil wars in Rwanda and 
the former Yugoslavia; the violent struggles in Gujurat that Harris invoked 
as examples of purely religious conflict; the World Wars - all were sparked 
by the attempts of one group to use the political apparatus of established 
society to restrict the growth and rights of another. Even more than the 
motif of martial imagery that recurs throughout much of their work, the 
political suggestions that punctuate the Horsemen's arguments strike the 
most alarming note in the books they have written. 

But if they are more or less aligned on the question of where to draw the 
lines, as well as that of how to characterize those who fill out the enemy 
camp, one point on which the Horsemen find very little common ground is 
that of how to characterize their own. Harris has argued that atheists should 
disown the term atheism, that "our use of the label is a mistake - and a 
mistake of some consequence." 94 He premises that rejection in part on the 
assertion that atheism should be regarded as the default position. Dawkins, 
by contrast, seems to have no problem with the title, and has even argued in 
favor of adopting the much reviled "militant atheism." 93 That falls perhaps 
not too far from Hitchens' flirtation with the term "anti-theism." On 
analogy with the homosexual community's appropriation of the previously 
derogatory "gay," Dennett has coined the term "bright" for unbelievers, but 
thus far the term seems not to have caught on. Dawkins, though not himself 
adopting it, has leant some support to the idea, while Hitchens calls it 

94 "The Problem with Atheism," a lecture given at the Atheist Alliance 
conference, September 28, 2007, and transcribed at http:// harris/2007/10/ 
the problem with atheism.html 

95 "An atheist call to arms," TED February 2002. 

222 Against the Irreligious Right 

conceited, a "cringe -making proposal." 96 In light of their decisiveness with 
respect to the identity of others, this unresolved question may seem curious. 
But as Harris implies in rejecting the "atheist" label, there is a strategic 
value in presenting one's own side as so normal that it warrants no name. As 
a group, they become rhetorically elusive; it is difficult to pin a criticism on 
a group you cannot name. 

Nor has the author of these essays found it practical to exercise a critical 
eye without, in turn, engaging in a bit of discourse. I see little point in 
denying that it is discourse to refer to our subject as New Atheism, or as 
polemical atheism. Discourse can be egregiously false and manipulative, 
but it is not innately so, and we can hardly talk about any subject without 
practicing it at least a little. The test of such discourse is, on the one hand, 
its utility - though utility alone cannot justify it, as I have hoped to imply 
throughout - and on the other hand, the given discourse's fidelity to the 
subject it claims to circumscribe. Whether or not our interpretations of New 
Atheism, as well as our description of polemical atheism, stand true to life 
is a matter for the reader to decide, and the validity of the critique that 
stands on such discourse depends largely on that judgment. These essays 
have hopefully demonstrated that the discourse by which the polemical 
atheists have constructed their visions of religion, theism, faith and conflict 
bears little fidelity to those phenomenon as they are encountered outside the 
pages of their books. They have staked the entire gambit on the utility of 
their critique. Their discourse is not idle; it is directed towards certain ends, 
and it is those very ends which warrant thinking of them as the 
philosophical core of a political inclination: the Irreligious Right. 

se GING, 5 

The Irreligious Right 

To ILLUSTRATE THE EASE with which the human mind can partition even 
mutually exclusive beliefs, Harris recounts a trip he and his wife took to 
France. 1 "As the events of September 11 still cast a shadow over the world," 
he recalls, "we had decided to avoid obvious terrorist targets while 
traveling. First on our list of such places was the American embassy in 
Paris." Upon arriving in Paris, they embark on a largely unfruitful search for 
hotel rooms. When they finally find one, they are offered an upgrade, free 
of charge, to a suite overlooking the American embassy. They take it, not 
reflecting until later on that they "had spent the better part of the day 
simultaneously trying to avoid and gain proximity to the very same point in 
space." They had encountered the embassy in two different cognitive 
contexts, and failed to connect them. "In the first case," Harris explains, "it 
signified a prime terrorist target; in the second, it promised a desirable view 
from a hotel window." 

That the story centers around the emblem of American political presence 
in the world at large makes it a particularly apropos allegory for the politics 
of the Irreligious Right. Elsewhere, 2 we have noted that the Four Horsemen 
all incline philosophically toward the pioneers of 18 th century French 
liberalism. Thus it might seem natural to suppose that the Horsemen 
themselves would embody that liberalism, or at least lean toward the 
political left. Harris certainly seems to think so, and in at least one article he 
has sought to establish his "liberal bona fides" by saying that he would 

like to see taxes raised on the "wealthy, drugs decriminalized and 
homosexuals free to marry. I also think that the Bush administration 
deserves most of the criticism it has received in the last six years — 

1 TEoF, 55-56 

2 "The Heirs of La Coterie Holbachique" 


224 Against the Irreligious Right 

especially "with respect to its waging of the "war in Iraq, its scuttling of 
science and its fiscal irresponsibility. 3 

But those are simplistic signifiers of alignment with the relatively centrist 
left of American politics, and the rest of the article as a whole gives a more 
mixed impression of his political inclinations. 

For further evidence of their liberalism we might turn to Dennett, who 
asserts that his "sacred values are obvious and quite ecumenical: 
democracy, justice, life, love and truth (in alphabetical order)." 4 But Dennett 
is not primarily a political animal, 5 and any estimation of his commitment to 
those values will require closer scrutiny. Throughout The God Delusion, 
Dawkins, perhaps the least overtly political of the Four, can be found siding 
with historical figures like Jefferson, Huxley, even Bishop John Shelby 
Spong, all of whom he characterizes as liberal. 

The waters first turn cloudy with Hitchens. Easily the most openly (one 
might say, brazenly) political of the Four, he also has the most tumultuous 
political history. Though long an outspoken Marxist socialist, he has, at 
least since September 2001, sided loudly with the conservative 
administration of former President George W. Bush, very much against the 
expectation of his peers. At the same time, he continues to proclaim the 
superiority of the Western liberal tradition. This is, it turns out, not so 
contradictory as one might suppose, since the defense of Western liberalism 
was one of the speaking points on which the neoconservatives built their 

Nor is there any real contradiction between granting to all Four Horsemen 
their professed allegiance to the tradition of French liberalism, and yet 
referring to them as the vanguard of an Irreligious Right. The requisite 
political motion is much like that by which Harris and his wife wound their 
way towards the American embassy in Paris: the Irreligious Right aims 
towards the liberal ideal even as they draw closer and closer toward its 
antithesis. It may seem paradoxical to suppose that the spread of liberalism 
could itself be conservative, but the neoconservatives illustrate how the 
apparent contradiction is at least nominally resolved. 

History has subjected the notion of conservatism, with which we 
associate the rightward political orientation, to a series of strange 
permutations. The conservatives that vied against the French liberals of the 

3 "Head-in-the-Sand Liberals: Western civilization really is at risk from 
Muslim extremists," Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2006. 

4 BtS, 23 

5 See, for example, the extent of his commitment to political matters at Town 
Meeting: BtS, 295; more on this further on. 

The Irreligious Right 225 

18 th century sought to conserve the traditions of the ancien regime, 
culminating in the theocratically-maintained absolute monarchy of Louis 
XIV and the privileges of a jealous aristocracy. But after three centuries of 
development, liberal thought and politics may now be said to constitute its 
own well-established tradition. As such, it becomes, itself, something to 
conserve, and it is in this regard that the Four Horsemen may be said to 
exemplify a conservative tendency, in much the same way that the 
neoconservative movement built their platform on the mission of preserving 
Western liberalism. 

"Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of 
religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to 
religions in the future," says Dennett. 6 The first term of the phrase 
"Irreligious Right" is not incidentally descriptive; it is not that a certain 
right-leaning group just so happens to be populated by the cultured 
opponents of religion. Rather, it is their identification of religion, and 
theism in particular, as the foremost threat to the liberal tradition they hope 
to conserve that marks the Irreligious Right as a political unity. Atheism is 
not only their theological disposition: they have shaped it into a political 
platform. In their approach to that platform they reveal their orientation 
toward the right. "It is clear," Harris writes, "that we have arrived at a 
period in our history where civil society, on a global scale, is not merely a 
nice idea; it is essential for the maintenance of civilization." 7 This, in 
capsule form, expresses the conservative premise underlying the formation 
of an Irreligious Right. What it seeks to conserve is civilization as defined 
by the tradition of 18 th century French liberalism; it seeks to conserve it 
specifically against the resurgence of religion. Harris can thus cite his 
preference for drug legalization or tax distribution as proof of his liberalism, 
but on the issue that exercises him most, the civil status of religion, he 
shows himself to be deeply conservative. 

Just how conservative becomes clear in declarations like, "The people 
who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are 
actually fascists." 8 He means, presumably, politicians like Geert Wilders, 
whose film Fitna Harris defends in an article entitled "Losing Our Spines to 
Save Our Necks." 9 The article demonstrates the tenuous line Harris walks 
between defense of liberal values, like free speech, and their inversion. At 
times it can be difficult to decide whether the more crucial point is that we 

6 BtS, 310 

7 TEoF, 150 

8 "Head-in-the-Sand Liberals." 

9 Huffington Post, May 5, 2008, 

226 Against the Irreligious Right 

should "expect politicians and journalists in every free society to 
strenuously defend Wilders' right to make such a film," or that "those who 
claim the 'right not to be offended,'" like European Muslims responding to 
Fitna, "have also announced their hatred of civil society." Meanwhile, 
Wilders' far-right "Freedom Party" recently triumphed in Dutch elections to 
become the third most powerful party in the nation, largely on a platform 
that calls for banning minarets and the Koran. 10 That Harris has leant moral 
support to the far-right advocates of censorship seems to concern him little 
if at all. 

In view of such heavy ironies, it is tempting to read his impassioned 
defense of free speech as little more than a rhetorical strategy. That may be 
going too far, but how does one reconcile Harris' apparently sincere attempt 
to identify himself as a liberal with the rightward pull of so much of what he 
espouses? It may be that the Irreligious Right is able to credibly maintain 
the appearance of centrism simply because their rhetoric has not yet grown 
as overtly radical as that of other contemporary conservative groups. The 
left/right dichotomy in politics is, after all, a matter of relative degree. The 
Democratic Party, though a mainstay of the political left in the United 
States, seems much more closely aligned with the center, or even the right, 
when compared to the Socialist parties of many European nations. So the 
question becomes, "to the right of whom?" 


The political transformation of Christopher Hitchens provides a convenient 
starting point. Once given to Marxist-Socialist leanings, Hitchens has, in 
recent years, reevaluated his political commitments, even to the point of 
stumping for the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. It 
might risk overstating the case to suggest that his change of heart was to 
some extent contingent on shifts within socialist thought itself. At the very 
least, it is worth pointing out that the hostility that once characterized 
relations between religion and Marxism no longer prevail. In his critique of 
New Atheism, 11 Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton argued that recent 
religious movements, such as "liberation theology," offer avenues toward 
social justice that have proven elusive for secular socialism. The New 
Atheists, he argues, ignore such religious moral imperatives to the detriment 
of their own credibility. By contrast, Hitchens rails against the "bizarre 

10 Cf. e.g. "Dutch voters boost far-right party of Geert Wilders," Robert 
Marquand, The Christian Science Monitor, June 10, 2010; see also "Enough 
Is Enough: Ban the Koran," Geert Wilders, de Volkskrant, August 8, 2007. 

11 Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale:2009) 

The Irreligious Right 227 

mutation known oxymoronically as 'liberation theology,' where priests and 
even some bishops adopted 'alternative' liturgies enshrining the ludicrous 
notion that Jesus of Nazareth was actually a dues-paying socialist." 12 

One can travel far right of Marxism without leaving the left end of the 
political spectrum. Suggesting that not all of the Vatican's reason for 
declaring liberation theology a heresy were bad does not in itself put 
Hitchens on the right, however much it might surprise the reader to see him 
suggest that there are good reasons for declaring any idea "heretical." On 
that evidence alone we might even suppose that Hitchens has settled 
comfortably closer to the center - that is, at least, until we come to his 
support of the Bush administration's war in Iraq. Critics have long taken 
Hitchens to task over his vocal support for that invasion, and have 
sometimes expressed bewilderment that once so outspoken a skeptic of 
conservative politics would serve as apologist for Operation Iraqi Freedom, 
as it was called. 13 That apparent contradiction dissolves once we recognize 
the significant overlap between the ideological assumptions of the 
neoconservatives on the one hand, and the Irreligious Right on the other. 

"It appears," writes Harris, "that one of the most urgent tasks we now 
face in the developed world is to find some way of facilitating the 
emergence of civil societies everywhere else." 14 This accords with the 
ideological assumptions that underpin the more philosophical persuasion of 
the American neoconservative movement. A pivotal expression of that 
philosophical brand is Francis Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?" 15 
and later, his book-length elaboration, The End of History and the Last 
Man. 16 Fukuyama's thesis is that the liberal democratic tradition represents 
the final evolution of human political thought, beyond which we may 
expect no further qualitative progress. Neoconservatism holds that the 
maintenance of the final culmination of political history depends on its 
spread to the remaining corners of the globe where Western liberalism has 
not yet firmly established itself. The invasion of Iraq was justified to a 
largely Democratic Congress on grounds that Iraq represented an immediate 

12 GING, 247 

13 For examples of Hitchens' apologetic, see eg. "Restating the Case for 
War: Waiting for Saddam to change is what got us into this mess in the first 
place," November 5, 2003, Slate; "The Buried Truth: A new book shows that 
Saddam didn't have nuclear weapons - yet," October 8, 2004, Slate; "No 
Regrets: Why I'm not sorry that George W. Bush beat Al Gore and John 
Kerry," January 19, 2009, Slate; etc. ad nauseam. 

14 TEoF, 150 

15 published in The National Interest, Summer 1989 

16 Free Press: 1992 

228 Against the Irreligious Right 

threat to the security of the United States, but for neoconservatives no such 
justification was needed. The imperative of forcibly exporting Western 
democracy sufficed. 

There are, however, significant differences between The End of Faith and 
Fukuyama's thesis circa 1989. Harris provides one such contrast when he 
writes that journalist Fareed Zakaria "has persuasively argued that the 
transition from tyranny to liberalism is unlikely to be accomplished by 
plebiscite. It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will 
generally be necessary to bridge the gap." 17 The neoconservatives' 
prediction of a rapid embrace of democracy in Iraq seems rosy by 
comparison. Stark though that contrast may be, a more telling difference 
lies in Harris' identification of theocracy as the one major obstacle to the 
triumph of "civil society," as he calls it. 

After a time, that philosophical gap has narrowed, with Fukuyama citing 
the potential for theocracy, particularly in the Middle East, to slow the final 
closing of the curtain on political history. And yet, Fukuyama has failed to 
adopt quite so hard a line as that espoused by Harris. 18 In light of that 
difference, and in light of Fukuyama's public break with his former 
neoconservative allies 19 , it is hardly surprising to find Hitchens comparing 
him to "a wooden Stalinist hack," amid the usual battery of barbs and 
stings. "The charge that used to be leveled against the neoconservatives," he 
writes, "was that they had wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein (pause for 
significant lowering of voice) even before Sept. 11, 2001. And that 
'accusation,' as Fukuyama well knows, was true - and to their credit." 20 It is 
curious to see Hitchens defending the intentions of the neoconservative 
Bush administration against the theorist who helped to chart their course, 
but then, Hitchens has long held that the brutality of Hussein's Baathist 
regime was reason enough to intervene in Iraq. Be that as it may, it only 
exonerates the neoconservatives if it can be shown that their motives were 
equally well grounded in the humanitarian ideal. 

Fukuyama has, in fact, acknowledged the neoconservative role, writing 
that, "More than any other group, it was the neoconservatives both inside 
and outside the Bush administration who pushed for democratizing Iraq and 

17 TEoF, 150-151 

18 Cp., for example, "Europe vs. Radical Islam: Alarmist Americans have 
mostly bad advice for Europeans," Francis Fukuyama, Slate, February 27, 

19 "After Neoconservativism," Francis Fukuyama, The New York Times, 
February 19, 2006. 

20 "The End of Fukuyama: Why his latest pronouncements miss the mark," 
Slate, March 1 , 2006. 

The Irreligious Right 229 

the broader Middle East." 21 Fukuyama's point is that the invasion was 
largely motivated by neoconservative ideology. It was on the premise, that 
illiberalism abroad was a threat to the gains made by liberalism at home, 
that the neoconservative think tank Project for a New American Century 
(PNAC) crafted a foreign policy with the end goal of promoting "American 
global leadership." 22 That foreign policy perspective in part explains the 
role of U.S. neoconservatives in terraforming the political landscape in 
Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, a PNAC "Project Memorandum" dated 
1999 declares, "it has become clear that the only solution for the threat Iraq 
poses is to remove Saddam." 23 Fukuyama was a signatory of the PNAC 
Statement of Principles - as were Bush administration staffers Dick Cheney, 
Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who led the charge into Iraq in part 
on trumped up allegations that the Baath regime had lent aid to al Qaeda 
and possessed biological and chemical agents that could be provided to 
terrorist groups for further attacks on American soil. Though in favorably 
comparing them to his "one-time Trotskyist comrades" Hitchens refers to 
only as his "temporary neocon allies," he seems to have made the mistake 
of conflating their motives for deposing Hussein with his own. If he wished 
to stay true to the moral premises that seem to have energized his support 
for Operation Iraqi Freedom, it would have been more honest to say that the 
Bush administration did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Better yet, he 
could acknowledge that the costs have made it difficult to justify the 
invasion, even if doing so did result in the tangible good of having removed 
Hussein from power. So far, he has avoided such qualifications, as though to 
admit as much would be equivalent to surrendering the moral high ground. 


There remains every reason to take Hitchens at his word when he calls such 
ideological alliances temporary. The neoconservatives ascended to the 
White House by means of a similar alliance with the Religious Right. 
Former President George W. Bush has always presented an ambiguous 
figure, and it could be argued that his political success (or usefulness, if you 
prefer a more cynical perspective) was grounded in his ability to credibly 
court his father's neoconservatives allies on one hand, and the Religious 

21 op cit. 

22 Eliot Abrams, et al., "Statement of Principles," June 3, 1997, 

23 Mark Lagon, "Project Memorandum," January 7, 1999, 

2gO Against the Irreligious Right 

Right on the other. The point is that, at the moment of their own 
ascendency, some among the Irreligious Right found themselves in the 
curious position of having common cause with a group politically tied to its 
antithesis. It may be taken as an index of their political sympathies that 
elements of both the Religious and Irreligious Rights could stand in support 
of the same war: the former in order to conserve "Judeo-Christian values," 
and the latter to conserve secular liberalism. But if the Religious Right 
represents one polarity across the table from the Irreligious Right, so do the 
"religious liberals" and "religious moderates" to the left of both; so also the 
secular liberals criticized by Harris for their tolerance, and by Dennett for 
their methodology. 

A soap opera quality attaches itself to this revolving door of strange 
bedfellows and arch-nemeses. Harris provides the most straightforward 
index to the uneasy alliances their political commitments entail: 

Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the 
Muslim world "who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they "will be 
unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies. 

Increasingly, Americans "will come to believe that the only people 
hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim 
"world are the religious lunatics of the West. Indeed, it is telling that 
the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the 
current "wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, 
whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the 
ideology of our enemies. Religious dogmatism is now playing both 
sides of the board in a very dangerous game. 24 

Indeed, a deep ambivalence pervades the Irreligious Right's attitude 
towards the religious liberalism. 

On the surface, this often resembles a straightforward divide-and-conquer 
tactic. In Letter to a Christian Nation, for example, Harris claims to 
"engage Christianity at its most divisive, injurious, and retrograde. In this, 
liberals, moderates, and nonbelievers can recognize a common cause." 25 
That seems like a reasonable appeal, but he cedes that common ground as 
soon as he turns to directly address the more "divisive, injurious, and 
retrograde" contingent. "Here," he writes, "we need only observe that the 
issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally 
admit." In brief: "If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are 

24 "The End of Liberalism?" 

25 LtaCN, "A Note to the Reader", ix-x. 

The Irreligious Right 231 

some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. You 
understand this. So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, 
one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really 
going to lose." 26 The criticism against those with whom he claims to have 
"common cause" ends up being central the book, and he rarely passes up an 
opportunity to trash his presumed allies to those he considers truly 
dangerous. It is almost as though Harris did not expect moderates and 
fundamentalists to read the same parts of Letter to a Christian Nation. 

But that represents a low ebb in the rather transparent tactic of playing 
one side against the other. It takes a more ominous turn when Dennett joins 
Harris in calling on religious moderates to oppose religious radicals. 
Specifically, he has public denunciation in mind. In arguing that 
fundamentalism represents religion at its most consistent, Harris practically 
demands that religious believers adhere to the most volatile demands of 
scripture. Dennett, on the other hand, admits that "fanatics are rarely if ever 
inspired by, or guided by, the deepest and best tenets in those religious 
traditions," and yet the two authors find accord on the issue of religion's 
responsibility for violence. To that end, Dennett argues that, "Al Qaeda and 
Hamas terrorism is still Islam's responsibility, and abortion-clinic bombing 
is still Christianity's responsibility, and the murderous activities of Hindu 
extremists are still Hinduism's responsibility." 27 It falls to those traditions to 
nullify the harm of the more radical elements for which they are 
responsible. This paves the way for the moral argument that, "Any religious 
person who is not actively and publicly involved in that effort is shirking a 
duty - and the fact that you don't belong to a congregation or denomination 
that is offending doesn't excuse you...." 28 Lest he has failed to make his 
point, he adds, "Until the priests and rabbis and imams and their flocks 
explicitly condemn by name the dangerous individuals and congregations 
within their ranks, they are all complicit." 29 

By way of illustration, in the final paragraphs of Breaking the Spell, 3,0 we 
find Dennett speculating on the immanent threat of those elements of the 
Religious Right who believe in "the inevitability of the End Days, or the 
Rapture, the coming Armageddon that will separate the blessed from the 
damned in the final Day of Judgment." They are, he tells us, comparable to 
the '"red-diaper babies,' children of hardline members of the Communist 
Party of America," some of whom "can still be found infecting the 

26 LtaCN, 5 

27 BtS, 299 

28 BtS, 301 

29 BtS, 301 

30 BtS, 337-339 

232 Against the Irreligious Right 

atmosphere of political action in left-wing circles, to the extreme frustration 
and annoyance of honest socialists and others on the left." Dennett admits 
of the End Timers that "it is hard to know how many they are." He is thus 
reduced to trafficking in ominous generalities, indicative of what Richard 
Hofstadter called "the paranoid style." 31 To that end, he poses a series of 
rhetorical questions: "Are their numbers growing? Apparently. Are they 
attempting to gain positions of power and influence in the governments of 
the world? Apparently. Should we all know about this phenomenon? We 
certainly should." Our lack of any definite knowledge of the matter, he 
writes, "in itself is worrisome, and constitutes an excellent reason to 
conduct an objective investigation of the whole End Times movement, and 
particularly the possible presence of fanatical adherents in positions of 
power in the government and the military." 

What is most curious about the argument is that Dennett clearly is not 
unmindful of the obvious point of reference for this sort of inquiry. He 
warns that, "Since we certainly don't want to relive McCarthyism in the 
twenty-first century, we should approach this task with maximal public 
accountability and disclosure, in a bipartisan spirit, and in the full light of 
public attention." What danger Dennett hopes to sidestep with this 
disclaimer remains unclear. He seems to think the mere acknowledgement 
sufficient to dispel the specter of Inquisition and witch-hunt that attends his 
suggestion, as though the trouble with the House Un-American Activities 
Committee was simply that it was too secretive or partisan. It was neither, 
and the more traditional objection remains that the program of denunciation 
itself was bankrupt. Yet that is exactly what Dennett has called for, and by 
the same process of "naming names" that characterized not only the black 
lists of the McCarthyist period, but also the cycle of denunciations in the 
witch crazes and Inquisition of the Medieval and Enlightenment eras. "I 
suggest," he writes, 

that the political leaders "who are in the best position to call for a full 
exposure of this disturbing trend are those "whose credentials could 
hardly be impugned by those "who are fearful of atheists or brights: 
the eleven senators and congressmen "who are members of the 
'Family (or the 'Fellowship Foundation'), a secretive Christian 
organization that has been influential in Washington, D.C, for 

31 "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Richard Hofstadter, Harper's 
Magazine, November 1964, pp. 77-86 - an immensely useful essay for 
understanding the dangers of the rhetoric employed by the Irreligious Right. 

The Irreligious Right 233 

He has, it seems, found in the Family an organ ready-made for the task of 
policing religious commitments among those involved in American politics. 

His caution that we should avoid McCarthy ism seems laudably 
conscientious so long as it remains unrecognized that something like it is 
the logical consequence of the program he has proposed. To illustrate, 
consider the inverse situation: suppose that a prominent religious 
intellectual were to suggest that as yet uncounted atheists are "attempting to 
gain positions of power and influence in the governments of the world," and 
that an inquiry should be established in which secularist senators and 
congressmen were expected to expose "this disturbing trend." Could any 
fair observer fail to see how the conclusion to such a question-begging 
inquiry is implicit in its formulation? Is there any doubt that Dennett would 
be horrified, and rightly so, even were the intellectual to blithely assure him 
that the intent were merely to allow the public to make "informed choices 
about their lives?" Surely he would see the political implications. Apart 
from the difficulties entailed by his own dictum that religious belief is 
practically indistinguishable from mere profession of belief, 32 that sort of 
political theater encourages the conversion of its findings into political 
epithets. Once the idea of an ideologically-driven coup takes hold, the mere 
suggestion that a political figure is a "red," or a "Muslim," or a "closet 
atheist" may be used to damage their reputation and undermine their 

These are possibilities that cannot easily be protected against once a 
society wanders down that path. Indeed, since 2008, the presidency of 
Barack Obama has been continually dogged by the tenacious rumor that he 
is a crypto-Muslim, against every indication that he is, in fact, a practicing 
Christian. To add to that confusion, some atheists have suggested that he is, 
to the contrary, a closet atheist, who has hidden his unbelief in order to 
remain politically viable in a constituency that is favorably disposed toward 
religious candidates, and Protestant Christians in particular. It is, perhaps, 
just as well for the President that rumors of his atheism have, so far, failed 
to gain traction in the public at large, but the fact that those who oppose him 
have chosen instead to believe that he is Muslim may suggest a shift in 
social attitudes. It seems likely that, so far as the presidency is concerned, 
atheists are no longer the least electable ideological persuasion. That would 
be better news for American atheists, both on the Irreligious Right and 
otherwise, if it had it been due to an improvement in popular perceptions 
about atheism, rather than by the spread of paranoia over the motives of 
Muslim Americans. 

32 See "The Diagnostics of Belief" for the elaboration of that theme. 

234 Against the Irreligious Right 

If the fact that such rumors can be leveraged in order to obstruct the 
normal business of the presidency did not already indicate the extent to 
which the paranoid style is operative in the contemporary political 
environment, a string of controversies in this year's mid-term elections 
suggest that the strategy of questioning a candidate's religious commitments 
has only grown more widespread. In Delaware, for example, candidate 
Christine O'Donnell felt compelled to air commercials denying that she 
practiced Wicca; opponents of Texas legislator Joe Straus have stressed his 
Judaism in attempt to weaken his bid for reelection as speaker of the House 
of Representatives; and South Carolina candidate for governor Nikki Haley 
fended off accusations that her professed Christianity was, in fact, a cover 
for Sikhism, even enduring the confused slur of a senator who called her a 
"raghead." 33 Mitt Romney, who lost the Republican primary to John 
McCain in 2008, remains a perennial subject of speculation about the 2012 
presidential election, but rarely without the suggestion that his Mormonism 
renders him unelectable - at present, Baptist minister Mike Huckabee is a 
front-runner for the Republican nomination. Very little, it seems, stands 
between Dennett and his hope that a widespread program of the 
denunciation will become de rigeur for the American political process, save 
the inclusion of Christian politicians in the web of suspicion. 

Even had he not already unambiguously declared End Timers 
"dangerous," ready to "betray our democracy in pursuit of their religious 
agendas," the suggestion that informed choice is impossible without some 
such naming of names presupposes what the newly informed citizen ought 
to do with what they have learned. The ceremony of a formal investigation 
imparts its own weight to the outcome. To be outed as an atheist or End 
Timer implies a stigma of guilt, regardless of whether or not the person's 
belief, or lack thereof, has any real impact on their ability to govern 
equitably. Denunciation thus becomes a kind of shibboleth, a profession of 
solidarity, tempting those who want to appear moderate or loyal to the 
secular status quo to denounce others, whether or not the denunciations are 
warranted. If a religious congregation or leader fails to denounce when it is 
expected of them, they run the risk of being seen as complicit, whether or 

33 See e.g.: "Crying Witch: Learning from the O'Donnell 'Dabbling' Debacle/ 
Spencer Dew, Religion Dispatches, October 28, 2010; "In Jesus' name?" 
Houston Chronicle, November 20, 2010; "Nikki Haley and Acceptable 
Racism," David A. Graham, Newsweek, June 4, 2010. All three candidates 
were running as Republicans, two with backing from the still nascent Tea 
Party, and the denunciations were largely voiced by opponents within the 
G.O.P, suggesting that the strategy still belongs largely to the conservative 
elements in the U.S. 

The Irreligious Right 235 

not they are. And if they are seen as complicit, then other religious groups 
will be expected to denounce them. Dennett seems intent on shaming the 
Family into starting just such a cycle of denunciation when he lists all 
eleven of them by name. From his earlier arguments, it follows not only that 
they would be better positioned to effectively root out eschatological 
elements within the government and military : to refuse would be shirking a 
moral and political duty. 

How that duty devolves to them proves a bit mystifying. Dawkins, as 
seen elsewhere, 34 argues that religion is responsible for conflict because it is 
uniquely capable of providing the identity distinctions that make it possible 
to draw the lines of conflict; Harris writes that, "moderates are, in large part, 
responsible for the conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the 
context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be 
adequately opposed." 35 Yet it seems doubtful that any of the Horsemen 
would hold the secular doctrines of democracy responsible for the providing 
the context that made, say, the excesses of the Vietnam War possible. For 
his part, Dennett builds his case for that responsibility by analogy to the 
legal status of swimming pools as "attractive nuisances." 36 Just as 
swimming pool owners "are under a duty to post a warning or take stronger 
affirmative action to protect children from the dangers of that attraction," 
responsibility for religious fanatics ought to rest with the memetic stewards 
"who maintain religions, and take steps to make them attractive." 37 

The analogy is dubious. For one thing, the attribution of responsibility is 
much more precise in the case of the swimming pool owner: one pool 
owner is not responsible for the attractive nuisance presented by his 
neighbor's pool. It is difficult to see how it could be the duty of Amish 
clergy, living in near total isolation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to publicly 
condemn the excesses of Christian Serbs involved in the atrocities of the 
former Yugoslavia, particularly if, as Dennett himself points out, those 
atrocities may have been motivated by political allegiances the two groups 
do not share. Nor is it clear that he would apply the same principle with 
respect to other groups. Merely by virtue of sharing the same vocation, was 
Jonas Salk, pioneer of the polio vaccine, responsible for Joseph Mengele, 
who took an appointment at Auschwitz to experiment on unwilling human 
victims? Where the engineers of American democracy complicit when 
Germany democracy enabled the political rise of National Socialism? Such 
broad dispensation makes a mockery of the notion of social responsibility, 

34 "A Drawing of Lines" 

35 TEoF, 45 

36 BtS, 298 

37 BtS, 299 

2g6 Against the Irreligious Right 

but that is just the scope suggested by the Irreligious Right's treatment of 
institutional responsibility when it comes to religion. 

Those are logical and ethical technicalities, but with respect to the politics 
of the Irreligious Right, the more serious point lies simply in the fact that, in 
having assigned responsibility, they are attempting to bring moral suasion to 
bear. It may put readers of Hitchens' Why Orwell Matters in mind of the 
story of Pavlik Morozov, a Soviet folk hero and "14-year old 'Pioneer' who 
had turned in his family to the Soviet police for the offense of hoarding 
grain." 38 He was martyred shortly thereafter, and made into an example of 
Party loyalty. Dennett, who made the unreliability of professing belief a 
central theme of Breaking the Spell, ought to have seen the difficulties that 
ethic entailed. By making denunciation a duty he promotes his own version 
of "belief in belief." But even short of recognizing that contradiction, he 
ought to have seen the historical tendency of the "responsibility" to 
denounce to go insistently awry. If we are to avoid the conclusion that he is 
simply willing (if not eager) to risk that pass, it may be necessary to assume 
that he has been lulled into a false sense of security, either by relative 
unfamiliarity with the ample examples afforded by history, or by pure 
political naivete. 

The latter explanation is suggested by a passage in Breaking the Spell, in 
which Dennett attempts to draw a distinction between his own delegation of 
responsibility in political matters, and the believer's delegation of moral 
responsibility to religious tradition or institutions. "When my wife and I go 
to Town Meeting," he writes, 

I know that she has studied the issues that confront our town so 
much more assiduously than I have that I routinely follow her lead, 
voting the way she tells me to vote, even if I'm not sure just why, 
because I have plenty of evidence for my conviction that if we did 
take the time and energy to thrash it all out she'd persuade me that, 
all things considered, her opinion "was correct. 39 

This is an astonishing passage, both for its candor and for the glaring 
philosophical contradiction it entails, coming as it does from an author who 
has praised the virtues of democracy, intellectual honesty and informed 
choice. Rhetorically, he asks, "Is this a dereliction of my duties as a 
citizen?" Whereas he summarily concludes that it is not, I would go further 

38 Why Orwell Matters, 1 58 

39 BtS, 295 

The Irreligious Right 237 

and say that, more than mere dereliction, it is the corruption of the political 
ideal that he lists among his own "sacred values." 40 

In a democratic society, the vote allows each citizen equal influence, at 
least in principle, over the policies by which they are governed. Simply 
defaulting on that right would, however wastefully, do little more than 
render Dennett's potential vote politically neutral. But by slavishly voting in 
line with his wife, he has essentially doubled her voting power, 
undermining the principle of equality intrinsic to the promise of "one 
person, one vote." If he feels so little vested in the issues, that he cannot be 
bothered to come to his own informed opinion on them, it would be more 
philosophically consistent to altogether abstain from casting a vote. The 
premise that her vote is equivalent to his vote, had he cared enough to 
inform himself on the issue, is based on an induction of dubious validity, 
namely the premise that, since she has always convinced him in the past, 
there is little chance of them ever disagreeing on a political issue. That 
premise is, of course, impossible to test so long as he continues to play 
follow-the-leader in political matters. Ultimately, these objections can be 
boiled down to the proposition that, if he is truly committed to the ideals of 
democracy and equality, we should expect to see put more care in their 
exercise. Perhaps the best we can say is that he professes belief in those 
ideals; his political dereliction makes it impossible to say with any certainty 
that he truly believes them. 

That Dennett's compatriots have done so little to counter his policy 
recommendations suggests the same failure that all Four Horsemen have 
criticized in religious groups. If, for example, Dawkins disagrees with his 
position, why does he hesitate to issue his criticisms "from the pulpit," so to 
speak? It may be because he actually agrees with Dennett, but to borrow 
Dennett's own explanation with respect to "an eminent Episcopal cleric," it 
may also be that Dawkins "doesn't want to let down the side." 41 Likewise, 
given Dennett's assertion that science "doesn't provide or establish the 
values that our ethical judgments and arguments are based on," 42 it would 
be interesting to know his opinion regarding the claims made in The Moral 
Landscape. So far, his pronouncements concerning Harris' thesis have taken 
place entirely behind closed doors, and I am at least cynical enough to 
expect little in the way of overt public disagreement. This relative accord, 
even in the face of differences of opinion on central matters, suggests that a 
secular version of Dennett's belief in belief may be operative within the 
Irreligious Right itself. Hitchens, more than any of the others, has shown 

40 BtS, 24 

41 BtS, 209-210 

42 BtS, 376 

238 Against the Irreligious Right 

himself willing to part ways with his fellow Horsemen, and for that, much 
credit is due. But it would be going too far to suggest that any of the Four 
are somehow responsible for Dennett's policy recommendations, or shirking 
a moral duty by their failure to denounce him by name. 


The emphasis so far has been on what could be called political theater, but 
there are civil implications as well. "The principle is unassailable," writes 
Dennett: "we others have no right to intrude on their private practices so 
long as we can be quite sure that they are not injuring others. But it is 
getting harder and harder to be sure about when this is the case." 43 This, like 
Harris' controversial claim that belief is so intimately tied to action that it 
would be reasonable to treat some beliefs as a declaration of intent to act, 
constitutes the initial link in a chain of thought that ends with the abrogation 
of the right to believe according to one's own rights of conscience. 44 

In fact, a distinct vein of paternalism may discerned throughout Breaking 
the Spell and God Is Not Great, as well as in the moral scheme suggested by 
The Moral Landscape and in the final chapters of The God Delusion. 45 
Dawkins supposes the imaginary friends of children "a good model for 
understanding theistic beliefs in adults," going so far to suggest that the 
religions may "have evolved originally by the postponement, over 
generations, of the moment in life when children gave up their binkers," as 
he calls them. 46 As far as he is concerned, pedomorphosis, "the retention 
into adulthood of childhood characteristics," is indicative of the religious 
mind. Similarly, Hitchens writes that religion "comes from the bawling and 
fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our 
inescapable demand for knowledge." 47 This recalls not only the stages of 
social history proposed by the Progressives of the Enlightenment, but also 
Freud's pseudo-psychological critique of religion. Dennett compares 
religious believers to drunks, drug addicts, isolated stone-age cultures, 
robotic slaves. "They all need all the help they can get," 48 he writes, 

43 BtS, 13-14 

44 On Harris' principle, see "The Diagnostics of Belief"; on rights of 
conscience, "The Heirs of La Coterie Holbachique." 

45 Esp. TGD, 389-394 

46 The reference is to a poem by A. A. Milne. 
4 ? GING, 64 

48 SfS, 13 

The Irreligious Right 239 

insisting that "we cannot maintain our childhood innocence forever. It is 
time for us all to grow up." 49 

It may not have passed notice that, if those who "maintain religions" and 
"make them more attractive" are the swimming pool owners in Dennett's 
analogy, then it follows that the religious fanatics for whom they are 
responsible are the children lured into the attractive nuisance of religion. 
That infantilization accords neatly with what he supposes to be "perhaps the 
most shocking implication" of his argument, namely that "those who have 
an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their 
religion [...] are in fact taking a personally immoral stand." 50 They have, on 
his account, delegated responsibility for moral behavior to the religious 
authority. It would be quite enough (and more) to say that, in doing so, they 
"should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their 
views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, 
inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously 
maintained and deserve no further hearing." 51 That in itself is a stance with 
grave political implications, but by no means the most stark implied by the 
passage. "Suppose you believe that stem-cell research is wrong because that 
is what God told you," he writes. 

Even if you are right — that is, even if God does indeed exist and has, 
personally, told you that stem-cell research is "wrong — you cannot 
reasonably expect others who do not share your faith or experience 
to accept this as a reason. You are being unreasonable in taking your 
stand. The fact that your faith is so strong that you cannot do 
otherwise just shows (if you really can't) that you are disabled for 
moral persuasion, a sort of robotic slave to a meme that you are 
unable to evaluate. 52 

The scenario plays like a Kafka story. The person in it is objectively right, 
but because she cannot be persuaded to affirm the wrong answer, she cedes 
all responsibility into the hands of those who oppose her. Dennett leaves 
virtually no recourse, except, ironically, that of false profession. Say that up 
is down, and you will, so far as your interlocutor is concerned, have 
demonstrated your capacity for moral persuasion. If Dennett is bothered by 
that consequence of his argument, he gives no indication of it. 

49 BtS, 334 

50 BtS, 295 

51 BtS, 296 

52 BtS, 296 

240 Against the Irreligious Right 

The dehumanization and denial of agency that comes at the end of that 
passage truly is shocking, or at least ought to be. It seems contrived to 
suggest that it would be permissible, perhaps even morally obligatory, to 
intervene in decisions that any other competent agent would be allowed to 
make as a matter of course, simply because the person making them 
espouses religious beliefs. In a context that we shall consider in a moment, 
Dennett argues that we, as a society, 

take ourselves to be sometimes permitted, and even obligated, to 
make such conscientious decisions on behalf of people "who cannot, 
for one reason or another, make an informed decision for 
themselves, and this set of problems can be addressed using the 
understanding that we have already hammered out in the workshop 


f political consensus on these other topics. 


More than a mere analogy, this amounts to the establishment of a principle 
by which it becomes possible to assert authority over the individual's rights 
of conscience. 

I have looked in vain for some underlying principle that would explain 
Breaking the Spell's variable treatment of the subject of responsibility. At 
one point Dennett argues by analogy, pointing out that, 

We used to regard drunks as somewhat diminished in their 
responsibility for their actions — they "were too drunk to know what 
they "were doing, after all — but we now see them, and the bartenders 
who serve them, as fully responsible. We need to spread the "word 
that religious intoxication is no excuse either. 54 

Presumably the bartender plays the same role that the swimming pool 
owner plays in the "attractive nuisance" analogy, but in the latter the 
steward of religious tradition shoulders the greater responsibility. The 
implication that those lured in by the attractive nuisance lack responsibility 
for their own actions is made more explicit in Dennett's "most shocking 
implication," that those who see religious moral claims as non-negotiable 
are "disabled for moral persuasion." This suggests the sort of psychological 
pathology legally recognized as a pretext for depriving a defendant their full 
liberty. Other religious believers have an inherent duty to denounce anyone 
whose actions paint them as "slave to a meme", even though we can have 

53 BtS, 324 

54 BtS, 285 

The Irreligious Right 241 

no confidence in such professions. It is total moral dereliction to cede 
responsibility to a religious tradition or leader, but not a similar dereliction 
of duty to informally delegate responsibility for political deliberation to 
one's wife. The confusion seems almost terminal. 

As it turns out, there is a way to render those variations consistent with 
one another, but the solution proves rather unkind to Dennett. The apparent 
contradictions disappear if we simply assume that, in allocating or denying 
responsibility to the religious believer, he has, in each case, chosen 
whichever is most prejudicial against religion. Thus the religious believer 
bears the greatest responsibility when called upon to answer for the evils 
perpetrated by her coreligionists, no matter how remote, and is capable of 
the least responsibility when standing on religious principle, no matter how 

The infantilization of religious belief common to at least three of the Four 
Horsemen; Harris' insistence that belief be taken as action in potentia; 
Dennett's suggestion that there are mitigating circumstances that complicate 
the otherwise "unassailable" principle of non-interference; his variable 
attitude towards personal responsibility - the fabric made of these threads 
seems, to me, inevitably paternalistic, if not downright authoritarian. The 
characteristic task of the rhetoric of the Irreligious Right is to provide the 
philosophical foundation for policies contrived to disabuse religious 
adherents of their theism, either for their own good (as in the paternalistic 
scheme), or for the survival of civilization (as in the apocalyptic). Whether 
it takes the form of Dennett's faintly condescending "central policy 
recommendation" that "we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, 
so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives," 55 or in 
Harris' more frank and appalling repudiation of any "freedom of belief' 56 
and opposition to "the ideal of religious toleration," 57 all four authors share 
in the work. So long as it remains restricted to a relatively small and 
politically remote group of like-minded polemicists, that imperative remains 
merely worrisome. Were it to take hold on a grand scale, the inevitable 
result would be policies, like those suggested by Dennett, that undermine 
the entire structure of the very political system the Irreligious Right 
presume to save from religion. 

Their stance on compulsory education provides the clearest illustration of 
the potential for authoritarianism. Indeed, a concern for what is being taught 
in school is common to all Four Horsemen, and central to both Breaking the 
Spell and The God Delusion. Unsurprisingly, all Four make stands against 

55 BtS, 339 

56 TEoF, inter alia, but esp. 51 and 77. 

57 TEoF, 15 

242 Against the Irreligious Right 

challenges to the teaching of evolution in U.S. schools, but they are not 
satisfied with a defensive posture. Indeed, for Dawkins that may count as 
offense, since he regards evolutionary education a "consciousness-raiser," 
intrinsically hostile to theism. Among the three failures Harris lists as the 
motive forces behind Letter to a Christian Nation, the second is "the failure 
of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation 
can understand." 58 He puts a finer point on it when he writes, "I pray that 
we may one day think clearly enough about these matters to render our 
children incapable of killing themselves over their books." 59 The 
consequence of failing to do so, he makes clear, is the annihilation of the 
species. The apocalyptic note rings so loudly in his "prayer" that he seems 
oblivious to the ominous overtones in a phrase like "render our children 
incapable." His treatment of the subject suggests an endorsement of the sort 
of indoctrination that characterized the Albanian school system under Enver 

Dennett presents a softer vision, but the intention seems much the same. 
"Let's get more education about religion into our schools, not less," he 

We should teach our children the creeds and customs, prohibitions 
and rituals, texts and music, and when we cover the history of 
religion, we should include both the positive — the role of churches 
and in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, the flourishing of 
science and the arts in early Islam, and the role of the Black Muslims 
in bringing hope, honor and self-respect to the otherwise shattered 
lives of many inmates in our prisons, for instance — and the negative 
— the Inquisition, anti-Semitism over the ages, the role of the 
Catholic Church in spreading AIDS in Africa through its opposition 
to condoms. No religion should be favored, and none ignored. 60 

This may seem generously ecumenical, but is complicated by reading it in 
light of Dennett's other prescriptions. Given the sheer enormity of the topic 
- there are hundreds of distinct religious traditions, each with complicated 
histories, doctrines and liturgies - the first stumbling block is strictly 
practical. How is it even possible to teach religion to that sort of depth 
without either omitting some (thus favoring others), pushing other subjects 

58 LtaCN, 91 

59 TEoF, 49 

60 BtS, 327 

The Irreligious Right 243 

out of the curriculum, or excessively burdening already heavily taxed 

But the far more crucial issue is the one that he himself raises, that of 
indoctrination. For Constitutional reasons, the United States has 
traditionally shied away from any impulse to provide a "mandated 
curriculum" for religious studies. Nearly every level of such a project, from 
the decision of whom would write the curriculum, to its implementation in 
the classroom, exposes the government to the possibility (or, I would argue, 
likelihood) of endorsement, contradicting the Establishment Clause of the 
First Amendment. Dennett never pauses to acknowledge those difficulties. 
His "mandated curriculum" thus never leaves the realm of Utopian 
speculation, where it is meant to serve as the antidote to the religious 
influence of parents. "No child has a right to freedom from indoctrination," 
he writes. "Shouldn't we change that?" He is, it turns out, building toward 
parody: "What, and let outsiders have a say in how I raise my child." 61 But 
to the extent that his solution evades charges of merely substituting one 
form of indoctrination for another, it does so precisely because it remains 
strictly ideal. Any real implementation of such a plan would almost 
immediately expose its own internal contradiction. 

By contrast, Dawkins - following the Darwinian psychologist Nicholas 
Humphrey 62 - argues that, "as long as children are young, vulnerable and in 
need of protection, truly moral guardianship shows itself in an honest 
attempt to second-guess what they would choose for themselves if they 
were old enough to do so." 63 This echoes Dennett's discussion of the 
importance of informed choice, but goes a step further by suggesting that 
"moral guardianship" is justified in making the choice on the child's behalf. 
Given the suggestion that religious belief is itself the retention of childhood 
characteristics into adulthood, little imagination is required to convert his 
conception of "truly moral guardianship" into the kind of justification 
Dennett gives for intervening in the decisions of religious adults. 

Harris echoes that theme when he argues, despite evidence to the 
contrary, that Islamist suicide bombers would be unwilling to kill 
themselves did they not believe seventy-two virgins await each martyr in 
Paradise. Dennett encompasses both principles when he argues that, 

61 BtS, 326 

62 "What Shall We Tell the Children?" Amnesty Lecture, Oxford, Feb. 21 , 
1997; Humphrey's express purpose, tactfully left unquoted by Dawkins, is, 
"To argue, in short, in favor of censorship, against freedom of expression, 
and to do so moreover in an area of life that has traditionally been regarded 
as sacrosanct," that of "moral and religious education." 

63 TGD, 367 

244 Against the Irreligious Right 

"Instead of trying to destroy the madrassahs that close the minds of 
thousands of young Muslim boys, we should create alternative schools - for 
Muslim boys and girls - that will better serve their real and pressing needs, 
and let those schools compete openly with the madrassahs for clientele." 64 
Earlier he argued that, "We shouldn't assume, while worrying over the 
likely effects, that the seductions of Western culture will automatically 
swamp all the fragile treasures of other cultures," 65 but here his suggestion 
seems calculated to do just that, by striking at the educational foundations 
of those cultures. Doing so, he predicts, will prevent them from choosing 
martyrdom in the future. 

It is interesting that, on this issue, Harris and Dennett part ways over 
matters of fact. Having read and quoted The End of Faith, Dennett must 
surely be acquainted with the fact that many of the key figures of Islamist 
terrorism were, in fact, educated in the Western schools and universities. 
Perhaps his point is that Western educators have simply failed to reach them 
early enough. Nor is there any less tension between his claim that, "in every 
place where terrorism has blossomed, those it has attracted are almost all 
young men who have learned enough about the world to see that their 
futures look otherwise bleak and uninspiring," 66 and Harris pre-emptive 
rejoinder that, "Muslim terrorists have not tended to come from the ranks of 
the uneducated poor; many have been middle class, educated, and without 
any obvious dysfunction in their personal lives." 67 At the very least, the 
apparent breach between their interpretations draws into question Dennett's 
confidence in putting forward the case of terrorism as a demonstration of 
how we can cut through "so many complexities, so many variables [...] to 
make predictions we can act on." 

Both Dawkins and, at times, Dennett write as though substituting a formal 
education about religion for parental influence would naturally produce a 
functionally neutral environment. Presumably children would thus be free 
to choose or decline religion of their own prerogative. Dennett's mandate 
for an exhaustive course in comparative religion even aims at transforming 
compulsory education into a rational "free market of religious choice." 
There are hints, however, that even the authors themselves do not believe 
they are truly leveling the playing field. "Let children learn about different 
faiths," Dawkins declares, "let them notice their incompatibility, and let 
them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that 

64 BtS, 335 

65 BtS, 327 

66 BtS, 333 

67 TEoF, 133 

The Irreligious Right 245 

incompatibility." 68 What conclusion they shall draw he seems to treat as a 
foregone conclusion when he speculates (as all the Horsemen do) that 
higher education inclines students towards atheism. In order to discourage 
religious belief, a curriculum need not teach, as the Soviets reportedly did, 
that modern science has searched the cosmos and firmly established the 
non-existence of God. It may be sufficient to simply isolate students from 
any instruction vested with belief, then teach the subject as though it were 
dead letter. 

The principle of moral guardianship favored by Dawkins seems to justify 
that approach on the pretense that children would naturally choose irreligion 
were they already privy to the information adults like Dawkins possess. 
When they do not, the only possible explanation is that they have been 
indoctrinated with the wrong information. Discussing Wisconsin v. Yoder - 
the Supreme Court case which established the right of Amish parents to 
withdraw their children from high school - he argues that, "Even if the 
children had been asked and had expressed a preference for the Amish 
religion, can we suppose that they would have done so if they had been 
educated and informed about the available alternatives?" 69 By such 
rationalizations, he is attempting, in a sense, to draft a self-fulfilling 

Hitchens stops short of outlining educational reforms, but does suggest 
that, "If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained 
the age of reason, we would be living in quite a different world." 70 Perhaps 
so, but the argument against indoctrination should not need the promise of a 
world without religion to make its case. It should be enough to say that a 
person will be better empowered to actually choose religion if her ability to 
eschew it is less constrained by childhood indoctrination. In God Is Not 
Great, it would seem, personal volition is not justification enough; the 
appeal of facilitating a more genuinely volitional approach to religious 
identity stems rather from Hitchens' wager that doing so will mean that 
fewer choose religion at all. 

In making that wager, the Horsemen's hope is that we will profit by a 
world less torn by religious conflict and less shaped by religious moralism. 
And so long as they frame their argument as a means of preemptively 
circumventing the loss of innocent lives, the reader may incline towards 
their position. Likewise, Humphrey and Dawkins give the argument for 
moral guardianship an air of unquestioned reasonableness by the example 
they use to illustrate the principle, that of a young Incan girl sacrificed to 

68 TGD, 383 

69 TGD, 371 

70 GING, 220 

246 Against the Irreligious Right 

the sun-god. Surely, we are meant to think, no one would choose to die for 
so uncertain a belief if they understood the extent to which it was, 
objectively speaking, uncertain. 

Yet, there is an element of bait-and-switch to the argument. The principle 
is established with respect to cases of mortal peril - the young Incan 
sacrifice, young male suicide bombers, and so on - then brought to bear on 
the educational system at large, even where the connection between 
religious education and mortal peril is dubious at best. Even if we grant that 
it is objectively wrong to indoctrinate a child to seek or submit to their own 
self-destruction, we may still find reason to limit the principle to those fatal 
extremes. It does not follow, as Humphrey and Dawkins suggest, that we 
should also look to restrict the moral and religious education preferred by 
the Amish, who are not known to breed suicide terrorists or human 
sacrifices. Nor need we fall back on appeals to cultural diversity or 
relativism in order to justify our skepticism of the principle. We need only 
recognize that no education takes place in a vacuum, immunized from the 
biases of the person who writes the curriculum. 

Dawkins has written at length on the dangers of indoctrination and of 
labeling children according to their parents' religious affiliations, 71 almost 
always framing the discussion in terms of child abuse. Hitchens follows 
suit, devoting an entire chapter to the question, "Is Religion Child Abuse?" 
Those terms have inevitable political connotations, since accusations of 
child abuse can be made to serve as a potentially volatile pretext for state 
intervention. Dawkins asks, for example, "isn't it always a form of child 
abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to 
have thought about?" Asked about the accusations of sexual abuse in 
Dublin's religiously-administered school system, he replies that, "horrible 
as the sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the 
long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic 
in the first place." Reprising the theme, he argues "that the phrase 'child 
abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests 
are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the 
punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell." 

This raises a multitude of practical issues that Dawkins can hardly be 
bothered to address. He gives the example of eternal damnation as an 
example of abusive indoctrination, but is all religious indoctrination 
abusive? Would it also qualify as child abuse to teach a child a belief that 
may have much the same epistemic standing as the Catholic doctrine of 
damnation, but which seems much less likely to traumatize - e.g. that good 
deeds improve one's karma? His consideration of the Amish seems to 

71 TGD, Ch. 9 

The Irreligious Right 24J 

suggest that a religious belief need not have any demonstrable 
psychological harm in order to qualify. So is it the epistemic standing of the 
belief, or its potential impact on the child, that makes a teaching abusive? 
Could it, for example, be considered abusive to teach a young child about 
the Holocaust, the inevitability of death, or the role of social Darwinism in 
20 th century American political discourse, on the principle that they will be 
traumatized by familiarity with the facts of history and biology? Or is it 
only abusive when a purportedly objective critic like Dawkins considers the 
teaching patently false? 

If we consent to call indoctrination a form of child abuse, then all of those 
technicalities become even more pressing in light of the question, what 
should be done about it? When an adult is physically abusive to a child, the 
typical response is to remove the child from their custody, and perhaps to 
stigmatize the adult and ensure that their access to other children is limited, 
as well. If the psychological abuse of "bringing the child up Catholic" is 
comparable to, or even worse than, sexual and physical abuse, how could 
we as a society countenance any smaller penalty for the one abuse than for 
the other? Should we thus expect the State to take custody of any child 
whose parents have taught her the doctrine of Original Sin, or reincarnation, 
or the Ten Commandments, as with a child whose parents arbitrarily beat or 
exploit their children? 

To be clear, it does not seem to me that Dawkins intentionally advocates 
any such policy. Rather, what he seems to have in mind is something akin to 
a magically spontaneous, society -wide change of heart, without the need for 
coercion. If so, then he has been naive about the effect of introducing the 
term child abuse, and about the radical change in the legal and political 
status of family that it makes all but logically binding. In forging their 
educational policy recommendations, Dawkins and Dennett both attack the 
parents' standing as steward of the child. From the viewpoint of the 
institutional traditions of the United States, this represents a shift towards 
state paternalism. I am not entirely convinced that the Irreligious Right 
would shy from that interpretation. 

Here we see the authoritarian impulse take shape. Both Dennett and 
Dawkins have leveled arguments against the principle of the parents' right 
to guardianship over the child; both have provided principles whereby the 
State could be empowered to take exclusive control of a child's religious 
education. If they have not acknowledged the potential for abuse of 
authority, it may be because abuse of authority is precisely what they have 
in mind. All Four Horsemen, in fact, have provided rationales for using 
compulsory education to target certain religious doctrines (perhaps religion 
in toto) to make them untenable - Dawkins in terms of "consciousness- 

248 Against the Irreligious Right 

raising," 72 Dennett with his talk of "toxic memes," 73 Hitchens as opposition 
to religious authoritarianism, and Harris in the frankest terms of all. It does 
not tax the imagination to see how all of this could be taken to suggest a 
program of compulsory education for the specific purpose of indoctrinating 
children against religion. Legally prevent parents from sharing their 
religious beliefs with their children; mandate that all children undergo a 
course of religious instruction calculated to neutralize any latent inclination 
toward religious belief. Here we see the dangerous tendency of the 
Irreligious Right distilled to its essence. Through much of what the 
Horsemen have written, the suggestion that we should be willing to 
engineer society, or government, or future generations such that they simply 
have no choice but to reject religion, hovers just below the surface. 


In presenting the case for considering the Four Horsemen representative of 
an Irreligious Right, I have by and large argued as though it were a priori 
clear that they were aware of the logical consequences of the positions they 
have taken. That is, perhaps, ungenerous, since it assumes that they would, 
if asked directly, affirm the need for some highly illiberal policies, despite 
their insistence that they ultimately seek the preservation of liberal society - 
policies such as the use of compulsory education to indoctrinate children 
against religion; the direct and deliberate disruption of national sovereignty 
in other regions of the world, not only through the political, commercial and 
educational methods of globalism, but through unprovoked military 
intervention and the installation of despotic regimes; programs of 
denunciation and the implementation of propaganda campaigns; and state 
paternalism on the pretense that religious affiliation indicates an incapacity 
for genuine moral agency. "Some propositions are so dangerous," Harris 
asserts, "that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." 74 It is 
difficult to imagine a political disposition more dangerous than one that 
affirms so tyrannical a principle. 

But we may save the Four Horsemen from those charges by opting for 
another interpretation, in its own way ungenerous. It is possible that they 
simply have not consciously connected the dots and seen the political 
picture that arises. To a diligent reader it may seem almost arithmetically 
plain what policy is suggested when you add together the premises that, first 
of all, religious indoctrination is more damaging to a child than sexual 

72 TGD, 379-383 

73 BtS, 328-333 

74 TEoF, 52-53 

The Irreligious Right 249 

abuse; secondly, that state intervention is justified in cases of abuse; thirdly, 
decisions should be made on behalf of children by second guessing what 
they would choose for themselves were it possible for them to be fully 
appraised of the relevant facts; and finally, some forms of education (e.g. 
evolutionary biology) are "consciousness-raisers" that make religious belief 
untenable. If these premises are accepted at face value, the course of action 
seems logically binding. And yet, Dawkins may have failed to notice that he 
had, in essence, provided a formula for state-sponsored atheism. If the 
question of whether or not he would support such a program were put to 
him directly, he might well be horrified by the mere suggestion. 

To the extent that we, too, are horrified by the logical consequences of 
their arguments, it may seem an only moderately backhanded brand of 
kindness to suppose that shortsightedness prevented them from seeing the 
import of the positions they have espoused. To suppose that they grasped 
those consequences prior to the publication of their books is to credit them 
with an authoritarian and conservative impulse that they have not explicitly 
claimed for themselves. And yet, if Harris is right about the logical 
consequences of belief, or Dennett about the dangers of engineering toxic 
memes, 75 it may matter little whether or not the Horsemen would endorse 
the ends to which their positions tend. 

"Since my proto-theory is not yet established and may prove to be 
wrong," writes Dennett in the last chapter of Breaking the Spell, "it 
shouldn't be used yet to guide our policies." 76 Yet he cannot resist the 
temptation. Though he professes to counsel patience, he raises the specter of 
apocalypse in the very next sentence: 

The current situation is scary — one religious fanaticism or another 
could produce a global catastrophe, after all — but we should resist 
rash "remedies" and other overreactions. It is possible, however to 
discuss options today, and to think hypothetically of what the sound 
policies would be if something like my account of religion is correct. 77 

He continues by assailing the epistemic status of religion as "not even a 
theory." This is baroque and pointed rhetoric: despite protesting loudly 
against any temptation to begin putting into practice policies based on his 
theories, Dennett nevertheless presents the sort of policy that would be 
"defensible" on those assumptions, and argues for its urgency, while 

75 Cf. "The Diagnostics of Belief." 

76 BtS, 310 

77 BtS, 311 

250 Against the Irreligious Right 

simultaneously presenting the religious position as wholly and literally 
indefensible. Surely Dennett is not so cloistered in the white tower of 
academia as to be unaware how rarely populations await firm confirmation 
of a theory before settling on policy. A cynic might suppose that he has 
issued his cautions to cover himself against the charge of radicalism while 
nevertheless suggesting the political path he prefers, in hopes that it will be 
taken up, posthaste. Taking his arguments seriously almost seems to 
necessitate it; otherwise, we are left with the difficulty of explaining why he 
would so urgently sketch a roadmap that he himself cautions is both 
gratuitous and potentially disastrous. 

Epilogue: Failures (and the 
Future) of Religious Critique 

At the beginning of these essays, it was suggested that the most 
dangerous thing we can do to the arguments of the Irreligious Right is take 
them seriously. With each essay I have endeavored to consider on their own 
merits the major themes presented by the books of the Four Horsemen, but 
even that would have been impossible had we not begun from two 
assumptions that are worth stating now. The first concerns the validity of 
atheism, which should be taken as granted. Indeed, I cannot see how true 
theism can be possible without at least the possibility of a conscientious 
alternative in the form of disbelief, so in the last resort it can be argued that 
personal atheism is at least as defensible as personal theism. The objections 
that have been made in this collection have been directed not at the atheism 
of those who espoused such arguments, but rather at the web of 
philosophical, political and social positions that have clustered around that 
central disbelief. They are, then, consequentialist rather than essentialist 
objections, and it is partly in the hope of maintaining the possibility of a 
socially constructive, rather than destructive, atheist community that they 
have been brought to bear. The rumor of a zero-sum conflict between 
religious believers and secular unbelievers works against not only the 
fundamentalists that Harris paints as the truest of religious believers, but 
also against unbelievers who seek only to exercise the rights of conscience 
that Harris' polemic denies. 

It has been necessary, secondly, to take seriously the contention that 
religious critique plays a real and vital role in civil discourse. Religious 
practices do sometimes threaten people and warp communities; it 
sometimes does become necessary to intervene, if only to ensure that the 
religious involvement of the citizens of those communities has indeed been 
voluntary. However, there is more than one angle of approach to such 


252 Against the Irreligious Right 

concerns. Of first importance is the difference between those who hold that 
the misdemeanors of certain religious observers and institutions are 
ultimately distinguishable from the phenomenon of religion, and those who 
hold that religion is, by nature, abusive. Neither group will be disposed to 
overlook the misdemeanors of religious groups, but the difference in 
approach will determine the range of solutions they each are inclined to 
pursue. A person who believes that the misdemeanors of the religious can be 
isolated from religion per se will be more inclined to address those 
problems with a scalpel, seeking to excise corruption while leaving religion 
as much as possible to its own devices. The other perspective will incline 
more toward the sledgehammer, hoping to eliminate the abuses by the fait 
accompli of eliminating religion altogether. 

The latter goal, as God Is Not Great acknowledges, may well be 
impossible; The End of Faith proves more sanguine about the possibility. 
But even having anticipated the survival of religion, Hitchens belongs to the 
sledgehammer school. The problem, as he sees it, lies not in the 
corruptibility of all human institutions, but in the very nature of religion. 
And so we see him joining Dawkins in calling for the arrest and prosecution 
of Pope Benedict XVI "for crimes against humanity," 1 a sweeping gesture 
that seems to have been calculated more for press reaction than for the slim 
chance that it would ever lead to legal action. Neither Dawkins nor Hitchens 
seem to have asked themselves whether, in the remote chance that an 
international court actually managed to convict Benedict XVI, it would do 
anything to prevent the sexual abuse of minors. It seems entirely more 
likely that the arrest would create a siege atmosphere among Catholics, who 
would perceive the trial as an attack on Catholicism itself. Perhaps they 
would not be wrong in thinking so. Apart from a symbolic condemnation of 
the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, it remains unclear what the 
campaign was meant to accomplish. If the exile last century of Sultan 
Mohammed V from French Morocco is any index of the efficacy of 
international attempts to depose religious leadership, then the arrest and 
prosecution of the Pope would likely have led to nothing but an increase in 
hostility between Catholics and the partisans of secularism. Surely that 
would have been particularly disastrous in Hitchens and Dawkins' own 
United Kingdom, where the struggle for an independent North has long 
been associated with the geographical division between Catholics and the 
Protestant South. 

In the case of those who hold that religion naturally inclines toward 
abuse, we may distinguish between, on the one hand, the approach from 

1 "Richard Dawkins calls for arrest of Pope Benedict XVI," Marc Home, The 
Sunday Times (London), April 11 , 2010. 

Epilogue 253 

particular to universal, and on the other, the approach from universal to 
particular. We may think of these as the particulate and holistic approaches, 
respectively. An otherwise unbiased person, confronted with enough 
examples of abusive religion, might eventually arrive at the conclusion that 
there is something wrong in the heart of the religion; this is the particulate 
approach. Meanwhile, another person might decide, holistically, that 
religion is rotten to the core, and interpret all subsequent encounters in light 
of that predisposition toward irreligion. The two may merge at the ends, but 
the distinction still matters since, so long as a person adheres to the 
character of the particulate approach, they may be swayed by evidence to 
the contrary. A person who approaches the evidence from the holistic 
position that religion is inherently poisonous will invariably find a way to 
confirm that premise, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. 

The point I am attempting to circumscribe is that, in either case, it is more 
productive to address the particulars than to attack the universal. The books 
of the Four Horsemen marshal in the particular only to build the case 
against the universal. In doing so, they undermine many of the particulate 
goals that would do much to redress the actual wrongs of religion. The 
campaign to arrest Benedict XVI served almost no practical purpose, and 
drew attention away from programs that might actually have gone some 
way toward preventing future abuses. To a certain frame of mind, the 
campaign represents a call for the barest form of justice, but little about it 
was calibrated to actually address the sexual abuse behind the charge. On 
the whole, when it comes to such scandals within the Catholic Church, the 
Horsemen have been long on moral condemnation, and pitiably short on 
practical solutions. The arrest campaign is just one instance in which they 
have allowed the holistic view to short-circuit a practical, particulate 
approach to a concrete problem. It is in part because they offer little beyond 
such blustering, high-profile campaigns that the terms with which we 
discuss religion must be reconsidered before we as a society can continue 
the discussion over the civil status of religion. A framework is needed, one 
that allows the debate to gravitate towards practical solutions rather than 
ineffectual grandstanding. 

Of the Four Horsemen themselves, the harshest criticism I intend to make 
is simply that they ought to have known better. These are, after all, learned 
men, and their opinions have, in general, counted for much. Why then, 
when he finds himself arguing in support of fascist partisans in the 
Netherlands, should Harris suppose that the fault rests with everyone else? 
Why should Dawkins have so much faith in an inexorable moral Zeitgeist 
when he can offer no proof of its existence nor explanation for how it might 
work? Why should a lifelong student of history and politics like Hitchens 
traffic in patent enormities and an historical perspective characterized by its 

254 Against the Irreligious Right 

almost utter lack of depth? And how can Dennett advocate political 
denunciation when he is aware of the historical ease with which similar 
programs have turned into watchwords of abuse? How could all Four be so 
oblivious to the myriad contradictions that infect their work? Or would it be 
more generous to suppose that they are not, after all, oblivious in the least? 

But as I made clear in the Introduction, the subject of these essays has not 
been the Four Horsemen, but rather the audience that has read and, in the 
main, approved of their critique. In the end, the Horsemen themselves may 
not even prove terribly representative of their audience. In his "Response to 
Controversy," for example, Harris clarified (or, at least, attempted to) a 
passage from The End of Faith that seemed to suggest that the execution of 
religious believers may be justified on the basis of their beliefs alone. 2 We 
may breathe easier knowing that Harris is more reasonable than his 
polemic, but what are we to make of a public that has read, and yet objected 
so little, to a book that contains the bald claim that, "Some propositions are 
so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them"? 3 
That sentence, and the fact that it required correction, make for the most 
vivid illustration of what was meant by saying at the outset that their 
rhetoric has been not only wrong by irresponsible. 

Harris, with his recurring martial turns of phrase and apocalyptic 
overtones, certainly proves the most direct, but he is not alone in advocating 
perspectives - and sometimes even policy - that erode not only our civil 
structures, but also civility itself. Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens have all 
suggested that religious upbringing should be considered a form of child 
abuse; Dennett and Harris have argued in favor of a political status quo that 
is inherently hostile to private religious belief. Even a minor aside, like 
Dawkins' attempt to rehabilitate the term "militant atheism," though 
innocuous when viewed in context, but may contribute to a militancy that is 
less metaphorical than he intends. All that would be required to push their 
arguments into outright hostility is the will to ignore or misrepresent the 
more pacific (and, unfortunately, marginal) aspects of each book. But even 
if that potential never comes to fruition, the books of the Four Horsemen 
still warrant scrutiny for what they can tell us about the wrong way to 
subject religion to criticism. 


The summation that follows, then, is intended not only to tie the objections 
of the previous essays into a more or less unified whole. It is also meant to 

2 See "The Diagnostics of Belief" for discussion. 

3 TEoF, 52-53 

Epilogue 255 

suggest possible outlines for the future of public dialogue about religion and 
atheism. In particular, it seeks to preserve the aims embodied by the two 
assumptions made explicit above: that of the need for an effective critique 
of religion, as well as for a viable space for disbelief. For each of the 
general objections made against the New Atheists, polemical atheists, and 
the Irreligious Right, there stands a converse motion, acknowledging the 
real and enduring issues that need to be addressed, but requiring more 
delicate and creative solutions than those currently prevailing in the public 

In "The Flattening of Historical Perspective" it was suggested that New 
Atheist criticisms are too often grounded in historical accounts that invite 
confusion, if not deliberate misrepresentation. Yet it contributes little to say 
that we ought to prefer accounts that do not sacrifice veracity and depth for 
compression and polemical value. I doubt that many of my readers would 
be so duplicitous as to consciously seek out historical accounts that have 
been simplified for no other purpose than to confirm a bias against religion. 
At the very least, few would brazenly admit to themselves that they choose 
their sources on that criteria. But this being so, why have so many readers 
so readily accepted New Atheist accounts like those we find in the books of 
the Four Horsemen? 

I hope I am not being naive by suggesting that a principle cause of the 
confusion rests with the lack of a clear and agreed upon set of criteria for 
dealing with historical example. Without some such set of guidelines, it can 
be all too tempting to draw poorly considered and facile conclusions. It may 
be tempting to derive from a complex example, like that of the 2002 
Gujurat riots, a simple arithmetic, and to suppose that the formula applies 
equally well whenever religion is present. By the steady accumulation of 
such examples, it is possible to build a dubiously general condemnation of 
religion, the sum of which may be seen in Harris' overblown rhetoric of a 
zero-sum conflict - one that must end with either the total abandonment of 
religious faith, or in the total destruction of civilization. 

If the question is, what can history tell us about religion, then it is 
necessary to begin by asking which historical episodes may be most relied 
upon to tell us the truth. Faced with the historical contributions of both a 
Father Munyeshyaka and a Father Dhelo, how are we to decide which, if 
either, better represents the character of religion? Reliability in scientific 
experiments is often calculated as the ratio of signal to noise, with the best 
results being those which admit of the least noise. Noise in this case 
signifies any information that attends an observation, but which is incidental 
to the inquiry. Part of what we are asking, then, when we inquire after the 
most reliable historical episodes, is which contain the least noise. When we 
consider the hypothesis that religion motivates a great deal of violent 

256 Against the Irreligious Right 

conflict, the first step should be to find examples where we can credibly 
rule out other potential motives. Given any two historical episodes where 
religion may be credibly suggested as a motive force, the one for which 
fewer non-religious motives may also be credibly suggested will be the 
more useful for discerning the civil and historical role of religion. 

Dennett's insistence on cui bono explanations may be useful here, though 
he rarely puts it to such use. When we asked of the Gujurat riots, for 
example, who stood to benefit from the violence, it immediately became 
clear that a political party, the Bharatiya Janata, had a role in both stirring 
up unrest and preventing the police from intervening. That the B.J.P. 
explicitly tied religious identity to its political goal of redressing the 
historical effects of British and Persian imperialism can only complicate our 
assessment. Harris seems to have recognized those complications, but his 
insistence on the exclusively religious character of the violence does 
nothing to alter facts that are clear once we refer to his sources. Rather than 
suggest a means of sorting the signal from the noise, he has merely denied 
the appearance of any noise at all. 

Judging from the examples offered by the Four Horsemen, political 
motives make for a strikingly prevalent form of noise. To what extent, for 
example, can we rule them out of a historical episode like the Spanish 
Inquisition, particularly when we note that it was carried out by an office of 
the Spanish Crown, often in conflict with its loyalties to the Vatican? The 
profit motive likewise complicates historical inquiry, and events like the 
Crusades and the conquest of the Americas prove less straightforward as 
indictments of religion once we acknowledge how much there was to gain 
in loot and territory by such endeavors. Recognizing as much does not 
amount to a concession that all religious violence will turn out to be, on 
closer inspection, political or economic violence, but intellectual honesty 
requires that we acknowledge the complexity involved in sorting religious 
from secular motives. 

If we are serious about learning the nature of religion from a study of 
history, then we must begin by preferring less ambiguous historical 
examples. Ideal examples - that is, those in which the role of religion is 
totally unencumbered by the "noise" of the broad range of possible secular 
motives - may prove to be exceedingly rare. What matters is that we resolve 
to be conscientious in choosing the least affected examples, and of dealing 
conscientiously with the ambiguities that do arise. No doubt some will see 
their favorite arguments hamstrung by that criteria, but it amounts to 
nothing more prejudicial than the suggestion that we should prefer unbiased 
inquiry to polemical advantage. 

To that we may add a second corrective, one which seeks to place 
historical particulars in a broader context. One problem that has always 
confronted the historian is that of where any given historical event begins 

Epilogue 257 

and ends. Ultimately, it may be that the impression we have of there being 
discrete historical events, like the Cold War or the Enlightenment, amounts 
to little more than useful artifice. Much depends on the distance we choose 
to stand from such events, and the information that we choose to include. 
Some historical patterns are found only by relying on a form of historical 
myopia, whether as a failure of inquiry or a deliberate blinkering. Dawkins' 
assertion of a discernible, sawtoothed moral progression is one such 
construction placed on history rather than found in it. To maintain it requires 
that he leave measurements vague, such as the gauge of the sawtooth 
spanning from the end of Roman slavery to the beginning of the Atlantic 
slave trade. 

Similarly, the essay "Covert Theology" addressed the rhetorical 
constructions on which New Atheist arguments against the existence of God 
depend. Central to my critical purpose in that essay was the point that, 
despite their protestations against the discipline, the arguments the 
Horsemen have brought against theism constitute their own form of 
theology. Dawkins presented the most thorough and explicit exercise in 
theology, but in each case the theological effort was Pyrrhic by design. To 
the extent that such arguments work at all, they work by prevailing upon the 
theist to first accept a theology, like Dawkins' "God Hypothesis," that is 
built to self-destruct. 

What is striking about these efforts, then, is their logical futility. It is no 
accomplishment to overcome a logical defense that you yourself have 
designed for the purpose of being overcome. Such arguments work best, I 
suspect, against those who are already in doubt over the existence of gods, 
and to whom the adoption of a fatally flawed theology presents a welcome 
opportunity to settle the matter once and for all. No doubt such 
opportunities come as a relief to those whose already eroded belief has left 
them only nominally theist, and we should not underestimate the comfort 
such covert theological cases afford in those cases. Still, some less 
surreptitious means of confirming that disposition would be more honest. 

And what is the effect on a confirmed theist of something like Dawkins' 
argument? If the theology presented by his God Hypothesis fails to 
correspond to the theists' conception of God, then why should we expect it 
to have an effect at all? True, it may happen that the theist will decide early 
in the course of reading The God Delusion that Dawkins' account of God is 
more reasonable than her own. But having read Dawkins' rebuttal, it seems 
likely that she will either revert to her prior conception, or else find a way to 
salvage what appealed to her in Dawkins' Hypothesis. 

There remains the remote possibility that the God Hypothesis will 
correspond in every significant particular to the theology the theist takes 
with her into her reading of The God Delusion, and that Dawkins' criticism 

258 Against the Irreligious Right 

of that theology will thus address her actual beliefs quite directly. Is the 
theist then driven perforce to atheism? Still the answer is no, since all 
Dawkins has managed to show is that the God Hypothesis is flawed; he has 
not thereby demonstrated that all conceptions of deity are impossible, and a 
person who values their theism is as likely to settle on some other 
conception as they are to abandon theism altogether. That may seem a 
specious dodge, but is the theist who prefers the least assailable theology 
any less blameworthy than the atheist who constructs his theology with an 
eye toward implosion? 

That process has repeated itself throughout history. It is, in fact, part of 
the process of theology itself, a fact which Dennett presents as the defensive 
retreat of religious belief from the assault of skepticism. But as I argued in 
"Covert Theology," this mistakes theology for apologetic. The former 
furnishes concepts and arguments to the latter. Indeed, apologetic could 
hardly function without input from theology. But theology is first and 
foremost a tool for subjecting notions of deity to logical correction, while 
apologetic exists solely to convert the unbeliever. The first is philosophical 
in method, while the latter is more properly rhetorical. The shift from 
theology to rhetoric is likewise apparent in the arguments presented by 
Dawkins against the God Hypothesis. He builds his Hypothesis by a 
genuine, though deliberately faulty, process of theological thought, but the 
process of tearing it down again constitutes a form of atheist apologetic. 
That shift goes a long way toward explaining the futility of such arguments 
in the face of a comfortable theism, just as the same shift explains why 
religious apologetic rarely fails to do more than annoy an atheist 
comfortable with his own lack of belief. 

There has, as yet, been no silver bullet to destroy the theological premise, 
and so long as the notion of deity remains capable of detachment to any 
observed and isolated phenomenon, I cannot see how there ever will be one. 
Given the improbability of ever resolving, once and for all, the question of 
whether gods exist, it becomes critical to ask what purpose such debates 
serve, and then to ask whether that purpose justifies the effort apologists 
and polemicists invest in it. In The God Delusion, at least, it is clear that the 
debate is meant to undermine religion at the level of its "factual premise." 
Destroy the keystone, the premise goes, and the entire edifice will topple. 

For anyone who hopes to avert the dangers to which we are sometimes 
exposed by religious institutions, the appeal is clear. The attempt to 
disprove the existence of gods promises the greatest effect with the least 
amount of effort. At the cost of little more than a clever bit of reasoning, the 
rhetor averts an entire category of wrongs. But as it turns out, the long effort 
expended on the attempt to devise a proper silver bullet for religion has yet 
to pay dividends of that sort. Nor is there any guarantee that a foolproof 
argument against theism would result in the practical end it seems designed 

Epilogue 259 

to achieve. There lurks an obvious temptation in the idea that it is possible 
to solve a real and immediate problem, like the sexual abuse of minors, by 
unravelling the logic of the institution in which such problems have arisen, 
but it has invariably been more practical to address such problems directly, 
on the scale of the abuse rather than on that of the background of beliefs 
which have, in any case, only an indirect relation to the abuse. The critic of 
religion who addresses himself to mundane practical matters, like the 
administrative structure of the church, or the implementation of oversight 
procedures, will almost always do more to avert abuse than the polemicist 
who attempts to destroy religion at the level of belief. 

It is, after all, by no means clear that belief functions in the roughly 
diagnostic way implied by New Atheist accounts. "The Diagnostics of 
Belief" confronted Harris' contention that religious belief, particularly when 
schematized as "faith," necessarily entails predictably destructive behavior. 
Elevated to the status of invariable mechanical law, the premise that beliefs 
function as principles of behavior ends by blurring the line between belief 
and behavior, making it possible to rationalize responding to an expression 
of belief with disproportionate force. To the contrary, experience suggests 
that some other faculty often mediates between two. 

Here we find a strict conception of Rationalism at odds with a sincere 
humanism. We cannot ignore the intervening part played by those other 
faculties without eroding the humanistic principles developed over the 
course of the last several centuries. Among the Four Horsemen, the most 
explicit in repudiating that vein of humanism is Harris, in his insistence that 
rights of conscience are illusory. But if we want to carry on a conscientious 
debate over the status of belief, we must begin by recognizing the 
specifically human element. This means, first of all, resisting the urge to 
treat statements of belief as though they were equivalent to behavior, or to 
subject them to the same degree of intervention that we might apply to 
physical violence. There has been, on the whole, a tendency to treat the 
beliefs of others as though they were rightly subject to a nearly 
unconstrained program of extrapolation and interpretation, even as we 
zealously guard our own beliefs against the same program. To carry on the 
discussion in good faith, it will be necessary to recognize that the 
experience, formation and effects of belief rarely prove as predictable and 
mechanistic as the rationalistic ideal. 

Because we are all (as Dennett, at least, acknowledges) outsiders, caution 
is called for when attempting to represent the character of a person's beliefs, 
or of those aggregates of belief we call schools of thought, or faiths. The 
books of the Four Horsemen exhibit a satirical tendency that deliberately 
eschews caution. I have no objection to satire per se; in its proper hour and 
place it may prove as useful for the understanding as it is for polemic. But 

260 Against the Irreligious Right 

here the use is wholly polemical, and the authors never turn from satire to 
the commiseration necessary for an honest representation of religion as it is 
believed. They are careful to draw a category distinction between the sort of 
beliefs they themselves entertain and the sort of beliefs found in religion, 
which are, as far as they are concerned, ultimately reducible to a pathology. 

That unwillingness to compass religious beliefs in any but polemical 
terms betrays a signal disingenuousness. It takes the form of an exaggerated 
even-handedness, as though they had bent over backward to give religion 
the benefit of the doubt. Breaking the Spell provides the most emphatic 
example, endlessly cajoling its religious readers to meet it halfway. Indeed, 
a great deal of emphasis is needed to offset the initial impression, made by 
the analogy between religion and a brain fluke that appears on the book's 
first several pages. Those who suppose that he protests overmuch in his 
calls for an open mind and even hand will no doubt feel their suspicions 
confirmed when, in later chapters, Dennett's "best" scientific explanation 
for the origins of religion presume to confirm the accuracy of brain fluke 
analogy, as though it had been nothing more than a fortuitous and well- 
conjectured hypothesis. 

A further disingenuousness lies in their dismissal of less straight) acketed 
forms of belief. Even as they insist on satire as the proper mode for 
representing religious belief, the authors struggle against the similar 
misrepresentations to which atheism has long been subject. Dawkins and 
Harris, in particular, take issue with the notion that atheism entails nihilism; 
that it is incapable of supporting morality; that it leads to a sterile 
rationalism or a pseudo-religious scientism in which only chance accounts 
for the emergence of existence from absolute nothingness, without however 
providing for meaning. Harris goes a step further by denying that a rational 
atheism is irreconcilable with a spiritual outlook. 

Not only are the Four Horsemen entitled to argue for a more nuanced and 
various view of atheism, but a substantive and honest appraisal of the topic 
utterly demands the correction of popular misconceptions and downright 
misrepresentation. Since they see with such clear eyes the need to frame 
their own positions with clarity and honesty, why then are they so eager to 
straight) acket religious belief? To insist that it may be adequately 
understood by viewing it through the lens of parody? To assert the priority 
of least common denominator versions of doctrine? They would allow none 
of the same constrains to be placed on secular atheists. To be generous, we 
may suppose that they have simply fallen victim to the all too common trap 
of human subjectivity, perspective giving what is closest to them the solidity 
of the genuinely real, while all that they have put at a distance is bathed in 
quicksilver. Less generously, perhaps their interest lies first of all in 
polemic, and no rhetorical turn can distort honest appraisal too much for 
them so long as it slips past scrutiny. The necessary corrective to such 

Epilogue 261 

polemically motivated distortion begins by endeavoring to take seriously 
the essential identity of the variety to which religious and secular beliefs are 
prone. It can be acknowledged that they differ with respect to subject 
matter, without at the same time supposing functional differences that 
necessarily invalidate the one over the other. 

Moreover, the attempt to condemn religion for the way in which it 
employs the profession of belief depends on a questionable narrowing of the 
subject. "The Taxonomy of Religion" argues that beliefs codified as creed 
may not necessarily form the core of the phenomenon. Rather, what we find 
when we make an extensive inquiry into comparative religion is the 
prevalence of ritual. Most often belief serves as an adjunct to those rituals, 
or is itself ritualized, as with the recitation of the Nicene Creed. This 
suggests a division of use: on the one hand, religious doctrines enhance the 
rituals of religious observance; on the other, they are sometimes brokered 
into the secular sphere in order to bolster claims of dubious value, both to 
secularism and to the religions from which those creeds derive. It could be 
credibly argued, for example, that the debate over the status of Creationism 
in American public school curricula represents the transfer of beliefs that 
play a comprehensible role in religious ritual, into a domain where they play 
a less useful role. 

Even granting that, it would be overreaching to suggest that the best way 
to guard against the misapplication of religious doctrine would be to oppose 
the doctrines themselves. Moreover, it would be fallacious to judge those 
doctrines outside of the context to which they belong. A project of inquiry 
and judgment, like that demanded by Breaking the Spell, is incomplete so 
long as it considers the content of religious doctrine in isolation from its 
employment in ritual practice. Stephen Jay Gould's conception of "non- 
overlapping magisteria" may resemble an ideal to be sought more than it 
does an accurate description of the normal state of affairs, but the struggle 
to expunge religious belief altogether as a measure against its encroachment 
on the secular sphere is bound only to inspire further entrenchment. By 
insisting on those terms, we contribute to the construction of the sort of 
zero-sum conflict that the polemical atheists insist is inherent in the 
relationship between religion and science. 


The most vivid reflection of the alleged incompatibility between religion 
and science arises over the project to oppose a religious morality to one 
grounded exclusively in scientific method. "Landscapes and Zeitgeists" 
examined the difficulties involved, but it would be more to the point to say 
that the entire project is ill-conceived, not least of all because it naively 

262 Against the Irreligious Right 

gives substance to that purported conflict. Having to his own satisfaction 
repudiated the suggestion that religion can be counted upon to furnish sound 
moral principles, the New Atheist runs to the opposite pole in order to 
salvage morality from the hazards of an ontological relativism. In doing so, 
he finds himself prone to much that he found objectionable in religious 
moralization: its authoritarianism, its mysticism, its inconsistency. The 
program conflates ontological relativism with cognitive relativism, such 
that, in order to dispel any prospect of moral relativism whatsoever, it 
becomes necessary to fashion a passable impression of the goal that two and 
a half millennia of intense philosophical inquiry has yet to achieve, that of 
an objective system of ethics. In the course of meeting the demands of that 
system, the Horsemen run the risk of inadvertently undermining the liberal 
principles that animated their entire project, and in the final analysis they 
have only succeeded in elaborating a system of casuistry. 

The first step toward unravelling that morass is to emphasize the 
functional difference between ontological and cognitive relativism. To 
recognize that our conception of moral principles is relative to the context 
from which each of us examines the issues involved does nothing to imply 
that morality itself is relative. Conscious of cognitive relativism, we may be 
more inclined to deal sympathetically with differing conceptions of 
morality. It becomes possible to acknowledge, despite Dawkins' assertions 
to the contrary, that some of us do in fact derive moral principles from 
religious observance. Moreover, we are logically compelled to admit that 
religious morality is no less epistemically privileged than its secular 
counterpart. Saying so does nothing to imply that those moral differences 
are equally valid. We need not defer to a morality with which we do not 
agree, but by the same token, the person espousing it need not defer to ours 

That in itself may be fatal to the Horsemen's polemical purpose in 
constructing a scientific ethics. Harris has made it clear that the intent of 
The Moral Landscape is to constitute an ethical elite, capable of dictating 
authoritative answers to moral questions in defiance of any subjective moral 
responsibility. That this would allow science to dispense with religious 
moral claims seems to be very much the heart of his ethical program. But if 
we affirm cognitive relativism - if, that is to say, we maintain that there 
may, after all, be right and wrong answers to moral questions, but that 
attempts to deduce those answers remain limited by our capacity for moral 
knowledge - then how can we hope to confront the moral lapses that we 
find among the religious? On the principle of starting simple, we may begin 
by addressing those lapses over which there is already general agreement. In 
the case of the sexual abuse scandals currently rocking the Roman Catholic 
Church, there seems to be little disagreement: there are no doctrines in the 
Church that allow for such abuse, and even devout Catholics seem horrified 

Epilogue 263 

by the revelations. The abuses have occurred not because of Catholic 
morality, but in spite of it. Rather than taking it as an opportunity to 
condemn the entire domain of religious morality, then, the productive 
solution is to cooperate with Catholic institutions in order to curb the 
incidence of abuse. Something of the sort has, indeed, taken place, with 
secular and Catholic organizations in the United States cooperating to draft 
new guidelines for clerical ordination. Those efforts took place largely 
without assistance from the polemical atheists represented by the Four 
Horsemen, who were occupied by the demands of making political hay over 
the scandals. 

Where religious and secular groups differ over the answers to moral 
questions, the public discussion necessarily becomes more complex. 
Genuine moral concern will almost inevitably lead to debate in such cases, 
with each side attempting to convince the other to adopt its position. To 
some degree, such debate will remain unavoidable, but it can at least be 
conducted with the sympathy that comes of recognizing that moral 
difference arises as a consequence of epistemic limitations that we all share. 
Where those debates remain in a state of unresolved tension, the best we 
can do may be to carve out an appropriate social space in which each side of 
the dispute is free to practice their moral scheme to as great an extent as 

If, in order to preserve the right to practice morality according to one's 
own personal responsibility, it becomes necessary to intervene in some 
practice that the perpetrator holds as a religious obligation, then so be it. 
Though intellectual honesty may compel us to admit that we can have no 
objective knowledge of moral truth, nor can we remain neutral on a moving 
train. But we should be circumspect in doing so, and cognizant that the most 
logically compelling reason for doing so is not the presumption that we 
know better, but rather, that the subjective nature of our moral knowledge 
requires us to give the potential victim the same opportunity to exercise 
their conscience that we give to the perpetrator. That necessarily implies the 
principle expressed by Mill's On Liberty, to the effect that every right of 
conscience must be permitted, save that which withholds the same rights to 

In so saying, we only reiterate the finest traditions of Western liberalism, 
but in light of some of the suggestions of the Irreligious Right it has been 
necessary to defend those principles against erosion, however well 
intentioned. "The Heirs of La Coterie Holbachique" suggested the ways in 
which the New Atheists reflect an 18 th century program for limiting 
religion, in large part by overlooking or repudiating the moderating 
influences of the intervening centuries. The trains of thought derived from 
Enlightenment critics like D'Holbach were, in their original context, 

264 Against the Irreligious Right 

anything but conservative, because there was, as yet, no secular/liberal 
tradition to protect. The philosophes were, with every encyclopedic entry, 
every historical reinterpretation, challenging the dominant culture of la 
regime ancien. Viewed in that historical context, those arguments must be 
judged radical. To now reassert those doctrines - and whatever the 
Horsemen may insist to the contrary, they have, in fact, become doctrinal - 
is what it never could have been before the age of Revolution: a political 

A particularly interesting aspect of that historical inheritance rests with 
the New Atheist advocacy of ideal history. Under that view, the historian is 
able to see discrete events not as the organic growth of incommensurable 
social, economic, political, cultural and natural forces, but as illustrations of 
universal principles in the progressive tendency of human civilization. We 
see that reflected not only in Dawkins' naive elaboration of a moral 
Zeitgeist, but more commonly in the supposition of an innate and eternal 
opposition between religion and reason, or religion and science, or religion 
and civil society. When that opposition is invoked to explain specific 
historical episodes of religious conflict - be it the death of Socrates or 
modern struggles over the teaching of evolution - it functions to ignore, if 
not outright deny, the role played by secular and historically contingent 
factors. With an event like the 2002 Gujurat riots, Harris suggests that the 
parts played by historical, political, ethnic and economic factors are 
ultimately negligible since, even without them, the mere presence of 
religious differences would have led to violence. In support of that view, he 
relies not on evidence or logical argument, but rather on an unstated 
conception of ideal history inherited from the Enlightenment. 

If the public discussion over religion and atheism are to escape the ruts in 
which they have entrenched themselves, we must learn to see both positions 
in the context of an organic, historical growth. In the case of modern 
Western atheism, the first step will be to turn a critical eye on the 18 th 
century French materialists, Encyclopediasts and Economists, in full 
recognition that they may well have been wrong, not only over particulars, 
but also in asserting universals. They wrote for a particular context, one 
dominated by the history of Western Catholicism and the more recent 
struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism. Much has changed in the 
modern era, including the diversification of the religious milieu available to 
the West. Secularists could do much worse than to approach religion from a 
perspective of inquiry unaffected by 1 8 th century theory. 

In part, the New Atheists have made consideration of that broader milieu 
negligible by how they have defined their allies and enemies. In doing so, 
they render a very complex field in reductive binary terms: for and against. 
By their account, Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Taoism may not be 
religions at all; Harris goes so far as to construe Buddhism as a brand of 

Epilogue 265 

rationalism. Pantheists and deists, likewise, prove to be de facto atheists. 
Dawkins claims that scientists naturally resist categorization as religious 
observers, even when they adopt that category themselves. These forged 
alliances and others have been examined, in "A Drawing of Lines," as an 
extension of the martial metaphor that rings in the language of some 
polemical atheists. This is nowhere more clear than in the books of Harris, 
where the syntax of battle rings throughout, and division - both between 
ally and enemy as well as within the enemy ranks - is a recurring motif. But 
it is likewise implicit in the work of his companion authors, most often in 
pseudo-anthropological or eugenic terms, as when Dennett and Dawkins 
speculate on the intelligence of the religious yeas as opposed to that of the 
atheist nays, or when Dawkins speculates that religious belief may be the 
result of psychological dysfunction. The implication, that religious beliefs 
not only result in qualitative differences but must also stem from inherent 
quantitative differences between persons, ought to have been at least faintly 
appalling to their readers. It suggests that same sort of shallow diagnoses 
that allowed Colonial apologists to argue for the native inability of 
colonized non-Europeans to aspire to the level of "civilization" foisted upon 
them by European mercantile interests. 

Given that polemical atheists have made a veritable tribe of irreligion, the 
argument that religion is inherently divisive does not lack for irony. At 
nearly every juncture where the rhetoric of the Four Horsemen has gone 
wrong, sometimes appallingly so, the first wrong step proves to be a giving 
way to the temptation to see religious believers, even those aptly described 
as "moderate," as an entrenched enemy, not only of secularism but of 
civilization. The argument that religious moderation should be held 
responsible for the fundamentalist excesses it "enables" amounts to little 
more than a rhetorical device, allowing polemicists to force all religious 
observers into the same militarized camp. The temptation to see religious 
practitioners and atheists as inherently at odds infects the debate. It too 
often leads such polemicists to draw unwarranted conclusions about the 
nature of religion, and to seek out solutions to a trumped up "problem of 
religion" by striking at people and institutions rather than at behaviors and 
policies. It has lately given rise to tensions within the secular ranks, as 
outspoken atheists divide off into New Atheist and "accommodationist" 

A responsibly conducted public debate will begin by resisting such 
factionalism. That this need be said at all serves as an index of just how 
successful the polemical discourse has been. Hitchens has quipped that a 
person cannot be reasoned out of a position that they were not reasoned 
into, but it is by drawing such lines, particularly when they are presented as 
stemming from innate differences, that polemical atheists preclude any 

266 Against the Irreligious Right 

possibility of arriving at rational agreement. The Four Horsemen have 
routinely called for a public discussion on the social import of religion, but 
nothing could be more fatal to genuine dialogue. If we hope to correct that 
circumstance, it will be necessary to backtrack a great deal. A new middle 
ground will need to be cleared away, one sufficiently distant from New 
Atheist perceptions about, as well as polemical atheist discourse against, 
religion and its practitioners. 

Our concern with the work of the Four Horsemen, then, is not yet that 
they represent whole cloth any widespread trend of opinion, but rather that 
they mark a low ebb in public debate. Their books have been accepted by 
mainstream opinion as vital contributions to the discussion over religion, its 
history, its function, and the part it has played and continues to play in 
setting the conditions which influence contemporary life. Despite their 
assertions to the contrary, such discussion has likely been an imperative of 
public discourse in every civilization touched by religious life. We need 
only look in order to find evidence of such dialogue in a variety of historical 
contexts, from the fine tradition of American debate leading to and 
proceeding from the Establishment Clause, to the broad and various 
literature of formative Christianity, of which the Civitas deo of Augustine is 
only the most visible remnant; from the ijtihad tradition of medieval Islam 
to the Confucian inquiry into piety and ritual. We could hardly be said to 
favor such discourse if we were to begrudge the New Atheists the 
opportunity to voice their grievances, but it speaks little for the current state 
of discussion when the names of such brazen and misleading polemicists as 
Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens become the shibboleths by which 
entry into the discussion is gained. 

And yet, only so much blame can be justly laid at the feet of the Four 
Horsemen. They hold the bulk of responsibility for the opinions they 
espouse, and they have been ceaseless promoters of those positions, but if 
they have contributed to a flattening of public discourse, they have been 
abetted by a wide and influential audience. On the strength of book sales 
alone we may number that audience in the millions. It has earned its title of 
accessory-after-the-fact not by any overt endorsement of the Irreligious 
Right - though some have, with varying degrees of acumen, done just that. 
Rather, by allowing those books to set the terms of discussion with so few 
objections - and more, by failing (or worse, refusing) to acknowledge any 
other form of discourse - we have, in effect, surrendered to the dubious 
conclusions to which the Four Horsemen have led us. I present these ten 
essays as an initial contribution toward the goal of freeing discussion to 
pursue more productive forms of engagement. They amount to a clearing of 
the throat, preliminary to a conversation conducted in better faith than that 
suggested by New Atheist and polemicist accounts 

Epilogue 267 

Those accounts find their purest and most disconcerting expression in the 
outlines of an increasingly political program. The constitution of that loose 
political affiliation, as well as the dangers to which it is prone, were 
examined in "The Irreligious Right." In its current incarnation, the 
Irreligious Right depends for its internal cohesiveness on the carefully 
constructed perceptions of the New Atheists, as described in the earlier 
essays. The core issues to which the Irreligious Right addresses itself were 
elaborated by the discourse of polemical atheists. The political persuasion 
represents a turn away from mere rhetoric and the crystallization of those 
perceptions and discourse in the beginnings of a program of action. 

In so doing, the Irreligious Right has achieved a curious inversion. They 
may, in the end, serve as bellwethers of a broader social shift whereby 
members of what has historically been known as secular liberalism establish 
a limit on the extent of its liberality. In truth, the movement toward 
liberalism has always shown evidence of an internal tension, represented by 
the question, "how much freedom is too much?" As history and experience 
continually remind, few secular liberals, manage to adhere scrupulously to 
the principle that all things should be permitted so long as they infringe on 
the right of no one; nearly all have at least one blind spot, one behavior so 
unpalatable that, when confronted with it, they lose their scruple. 

This remains the conservative element in secular liberalism, the caveat 
which cries out, something must be preserved! The Irreligious Right has 
made a staging ground of the question of religion. The theme that binds the 
books of the Four Horsemen, the leitmotif from which a secular 
conservatism is composed, is the idea that liberalism can be preserved only 
by ensuring the retreat of religion. Popular endorsement of that theme is, as 
yet, only fragmentary, and has yet to cohere into an organized political 
platform, but continues to move in that direction as New Atheists and 
polemical atheists adopt political stances and distinguish themselves not 
only from religious believers but also from "accommodationist" atheists. 
The most conservative formulation is Harris' insistence on a clash of 
civilizations, complete with an apocalyptic vision of the future, which 
secular liberalists must win if anyone is to survive. In the face of that 
urgency, it grows difficult to see how anyone who accepts his perspective 
could avoid translating it into a policy designed to defer that future. 

That political inclination threatens to change the entire tone of the public 
discussion. It implies that the question of religion no longer belongs fully to 
a discussion between equals, but has passed over to the domain of a social 
and governmental authority with the power to dictate terms to the religious 
adherent. Where those policy suggestions trample on the traditionally liberal 
"rights of conscience," the believer has good reason to regard them as a 
threat to their personal liberty. Crucially, the same often proves true when 

268 Against the Irreligious Right 

the positions of the religious are fashioned into political platforms, and 
indeed, it seems likely that the political forays of the Irreligious Right have 
been inspired, not without irony, by the aggressive political agenda of the 
American Religious Right. A robust separation of church and state must go 
both ways, but to be truly effective the struggle to ensure that separation 
must be held at arms length from the anti-religious and anti-theistic polemic 
reflected in the Four Horsemen. So long as it remains connected to the 
assertion that religion is inherently anathema to civil society, or to 
suggestions that religious believers are unfit for public service, many within 
the religious community will continue to regard it with suspicion, and the 
chances of a social accord will continue to diminish.